Guest Post by Linh Pham
One year ago – August 15, 2011 – Catholic youth activist Ho Van Oanh was arrested for advocating for greater rights and protection of mistreated workers. At age 27, he still languishes in jail, charged with Article 79: attempting to overthrow the government.
While reading about his background, I’m trying to put myself in his situation. I’m trying to imagine his fears, his confusion, his anger. After a year, does he still have optimism? Or has he given up? Is he bitter or hopeful? The following is my attempt at understanding him, through a fictional and dramatized journal that I imagine he could have written while sitting in his cell.
*August 15, 2011*
Yesterday’s event took me entirely by surprise. Seeing the man with the twisted upper lip several times was not coincidental. He turned out to be a plain-clothes policeman. After exiting my friend’s house, he and another policeman ambushed me and threw me into their car. I don’t know why I’m arrested. I screamed and told him he’s making a mistake, but that was only met with more roughness and contempt. He said if I continue to resist, I’ll be put with the worst of the prisoners. But how much worse can it get when my neighbors are thieves and violent gang members? But I stay quiet anyway. This has to be a mistake, I haven’t done anything. I don’t know why I’m here.
*August 16, 2011*
This is my third day in here, wherever here is. The concrete is cold and hard, but I still prefer it to the mattress where the smell of the last person still lingers. The inmates around me taunt and provoke me; one glance at me and they know I don’t belong here.
I prayed yesterday that Mother doesn’t know I’ve been gone yet. When I am released, there’s no need to tell her and have her worry.
*August 18, 2011*
My fears are barely containable now. I just try to continue to put my faith in God. Almost a week has passed and I am still not allowed to make a phone call or to write a letter. I can’t imagine how terrified Mother must be by now. I just wish there’s a way for me to tell her I’m fine.
From what I can piece together, I think the police detained me for my advocacy of the factory workers. I’m only a 26 year old boy who just graduated from university. I have no influence, no power. All I have experienced in life are God, family, and my studies. How can I possibly be a threat to anyone, no less the government? I pray that this is nothing more than a harsh warning and I will be released soon.
*August 23, 2011*
It’s clear at this point that my detainment is not just a mere warning. I am treated no better than the rapists and thieves in here.
I was finally given permission to call Mother to let her know where I am. I don’t have an answer for her when she asked me what I am being detained for. I tell her I will be released soon, even though I don’t know that myself. That seems to have put her at ease for now; maybe she will get a full night’s sleep since my arrest.
*September 10, 2011*
I have been asking God everyday to watch over and protect my family and me. The guard on the night shift saw me pray and it angered him so much for reasons I don’t understand. He taunts me about how God allows me to be in here. He storms into my cell and confiscates the crucifix I made from twigs and loose threads. He holds it inches in front of me and snaps it. I’ve been here for nearly a month now, and I feel like my spirit snapped with the crucifix.
*November 2, 2011*
A guard mentioned my family tried to visit me, but was turned away at the gates. He knows that I haven’t seen my family since being brought here. I don’t know if it is out of compassion or want of giving me false hope by telling me this. It’s hard to make the distinction in a place like this. In here, friendships are forged out of necessity and nothing more. Any acts of kindness come with conditions and are debts to be repaid. The few guards who are decent can turn on you the next day. Their unpredictability is troubling and heightens the anxiety in this place. There are times when I prefer the consistency of the heartless ones.
I hate it here so much. Why hasn’t God taken me out of this place? If this is a test, is He expecting me to fail first? I have not talked to Him much lately. Why should I when He has abandoned me.
*December 12, 2011*
Christmas approaches soon and I long to be with my family again. What are they doing to get me out of here? Have they given up? How about Yen Hoa parish? No letters, no visitors, no support. I’ve never felt loneliness like this before. To say my spirit is broken would be an understatement. Being broken implies there’s a possibility of piecing it back together. No, broken is the wrong word. My spirit has evaporated.
*February 15, 2012*
I have resigned to my conditions here. But after 6 months, they have allowed Anh Tu and Chi Lu to visit me briefly. Their initial expressions tell me my degrading appearance is appalling. It doesn’t matter. Just seeing them resurrects life and vitality I thought have permanently left. We agree not to lie to each other. I’m clearly not fine, and to tell Anh Chi otherwise would be entirely pointless. They tell me Mother isn’t well either. My arrest has taxed her health and they wouldn’t let her travel here in her condition. I don’t know whether to resent or commend them for doing that. Guards monitor our conversations. They forced the end of the meeting when Anh Chi told me that there people vying for my release. I don’t know who and I don’t know whether or not they will be successful. But to know I’m not forgotten allows me to hold on. I began praying again.
Note from the editor:
As the one year anniversary of arrest dawns on each imprisoned activist, we will feature a guest post from student leaders around the world. Each guest post will be published on the date of arrest of each individual activist – in the form of a poem, image, blog post, or creative writing piece. We will tell the world that their work is not forgotten, that their struggle will continue on. Learn more about the “Speak Up Now!” Campaign.