IN THE CROSSFIRE
Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary
That afternoon, Wednesday, June 10, 1936, Lu Sanh Hanh came to my workplace on the floor above the Descours & Cabaud metal products store to discuss our call for a general strike and for forming action committees. I had hidden a red cotton banner above the shelves at the back of the store, but had not yet finished painting the slogans in white. Around five o’clock, two Frenchmen suddenly appeared. Lu Sanh Hanh recognized one of them.
The Sûreté!* he hissed and raced down the stairs four at a time.
“Put on your coat and follow me, one of the policemen snapped at me. We have a warrant for your arrest.
I put on my jacket and descended the stairs, flanked by the two policemen. On the ground floor, the astonished stares of workers, salesmen and coolies* followed us to the door. In their haste, the cops hadn’t noticed the mimeographed copy of Class Struggle from America that I had been deciphering when work slacked off, which still lay on my desk.
They pushed me into a tarp-covered truck parked about a hundred meters away on the Quai de Belgique. There I found Lu Sanh Hanh, breathless and handcuffed: an Annamite* cop had overtaken and tripped him as he ran away. They handcuffed me also and drove us to the Sûreté headquarters at the upper end of Rue Catinat. On the way, I said to myself, From this moment on a page has turned in your life. There’s no going back.
The cops left Lu Sanh Hanh at the police station and told me to take them to my home. I lived in Xom Ga (Village of the Hens) in a northwest suburb of Saigon, but I pretended I was living with my mother, some 15 kilometers from town. Three kilometers from Thu Duc the truck stopped at the side of the road, from which there were only footpaths bordered by woods. It was getting dark, and the four cops escorting me were on their guard, perhaps still haunted by the specters of the village police officials who had been murdered by peasants a few years earlier, in 1930 and 1931. Dogs barked as we passed near the straw huts, arousing the whole hamlet of Tan Lo.
The two Annamite henchmen were posted behind the hedge while the French inspectors searched the house in the presence of my mother. She was terrified, but didn’t utter a sound. I was sick at heart to see her silent grief. My few books in French, carefully stored in the old cupboard, were tossed onto the camp-bed. They left Rousseau, Plato and Plutarch, but confiscated Mustapha Kémal ou l’Orient en marche and Georges Garros’s Forceries humaines. After exploring the dark corners where the rice jars were kept and some clothes were hung on a line, they asked me where I kept my own clothes. I had no choice, then, but to take them to my real home in Xom Ga.
It was completely dark by the time the truck stopped in front of my lodging. Having quickly grasped what was going on, Sung, my young fellow lodger, escaped by jumping over the back hedge. Vo Van Don was less agile, and was captured by the cops. They discovered a mimeographed edition of our clandestine newsletter, Tien Dao (Vanguard), underneath the mat in my room, and packed my entire library in a small trunk to take away. I still remember the titles of some of the books: the Communist Manifesto, Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution, Louis Roubaud’s Vietnam: la tragédie indochinoise, John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, Riazanov’s biography of Marx, and a book on Sun Yat-sen. Personal papers — including my crude attempts to translate Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Silvio Pellico’s My Prisons — were also confiscated.* My reading had been guided by the lists of subversive books and pamphlets seized during raids on other militants, which were naïvely published in newspapers. As for the Marxist texts, I had ordered them from Paris and they had escaped postal censorship.
At the Sûreté headquarters on Rue Catinat my comrades and I were separated. I spent the night in the guardroom, one ankle in shackles fastened by a rod to some other prisoners arrested for gambling. Thus attached, we lay crammed side by side on filthy wooden planks. The next evening, the examining magistrate charged my friends and me with subversive activities and placed us under a committal order. As night fell, we were taken to the Central Prison,* where we had to surrender our tax cards, our shoes, our money, and anything else we had on us. Then we were taken back to the Sûreté, each of us flanked by an Annamite cop to keep us from talking to each other.
I was taken alone to a room on the top floor. Gélot, a huge mixed-race cop with squinting pig-eyes, said he’d kill me if I didn’t talk. Four other cops surrounded me. Gélot ordered me to strip. All five attacked me, punching and kicking. I collapsed and soon lost consciousness. I came to in a pool of urine. An Annamite cop brought in Lu Sanh Hanh to mop the floor. They had already beaten him badly, and he looked dazed. Then Gélot pushed me out of the room and down the hall. Stopping in front of the closed door of another room, he motioned me to look through the keyhole. To my horror, I saw a young man my own age, completely naked with his face battered.
“Who’s that? asked Gélot.
“I don’t know.
“You know very well who it is! he said threateningly.
The prisoner I had glimpsed through the keyhole was Ngo Chinh Phen, a comrade whom I would later meet in prison.
I was then placed in solitary confinement, completely naked in a concrete cell. My clothes were hung outside on the iron hinges of the massive, double-padlocked door. My bed was a narrow inclined plank on the concrete floor. In one corner was the latrine hole; in another, a hole in the wall containing several liters of water. It was very hot. The stench of urine and excrement was suffocating. From a hole in the ceiling, three meters above the floor, a dim bulb behind a grate cast its pallid light on my new universe. It seemed like the antechamber of the first of the ten chambers of the Buddhist hell.
My skin was damp and sticky. I tried to get some air by standing on tiptoe and pressing my nose against the tiny holes in the iron spyhole at the top of the door. Twice a day the door would open just enough to pass in a bowl of poorly husked rice with a few scraps of dried fish, or sometimes beans and one or two strips of meat the size of a train ticket. At any other time, the sound of keys would make your heart skip a beat: it meant that you or someone in an adjoining cell would be dragged out for interrogation — in other words, to be tortured. I knew that it was usually in the evening or during the night that the Sûreté Political Police took prisoners to the top floor, into rooms with all the doors and windows closed so the screams of the tortured could not be heard out in the street.
One evening my turn came. I was brought before the squinty-eyed cop. With him was Superintendent Perroche, chief of the Political Police, who looked like a snake with spectacles. They stripped me and told me to “confess. A hefty Annamite cop and notorious torture specialist, Chin Ngoc, attached my thumb to the bared end of one long electric wire and another to my big toe. The two wires were hooked up to a huge truck generator mounted on a small table. The cop turned the crank, sending high-voltage shocks through my body. I winced, leaped up and shuddered involuntarily, then collapsed to the floor, my muscles twitching convulsively.
This went on and on . . . I don’t know for how long. At one point Perroche himself seized the crank with his left hand — his right arm ended in an artificial white-gloved fist — and turned it energetically. Then Chin Ngoc removed the wires. My thumb was scorched. He forced me to lie face down on the floor, his right foot pressing down on my lower back. Crossing my arms behind my back, he raised them slowly toward my head. An atrocious pain shot through my flattened thorax, then I suddenly blacked out. An instant in the void, in a dream of infinite peace and security. Then the shock of violent blows by a rattan cane on the soles of my feet brought me round, dazed, only half-conscious, and stupefied to see all those pigs standing around me — the same dull pork-eyes, the same cobra-with-spectacles, and the infuriated mad-dog mug spitting out threats and curses at me, as if I had defiled his ancestors’ tomb. This form of torture was called gizzard twisting (lan me ga).
My ravings apparently did not suffice for the required “spontaneous confession. The cop kept me on my stomach, forced a cylindrical wedge of wood between my jaws, pushed it to the back of my mouth, and tied it tightly behind my neck with a rope. He also bound my wrists to my ankles — my legs were bent behind my back. Then, as he pulled on the rope with one hand, he laid into me with the other, ferociously caning the soles of my feet. Every blow was followed by a short pause to let the pain sink in. During these pauses he would prod me in the gut with the sharp end of a stick. I tried to cry out, but could barely whimper like a dying dog. My body arched, I kicked convulsively. I felt that my skull was exploding with each snap of the cane.
The session was over. Now they forced me to jump up and down in place on my battered legs so that the contusions would be reabsorbed to bring down the swelling and bruises on the soles of my feet. These torturers were experts in bursting prisoners’ lungs, crushing their guts and inflicting atrocious suffering while leaving little or no trace. I was taken back to my cell.
In the wan light, uncertain days gave way to nights of anguish for me and for my companions in the neighboring cells, whose misery I suspected was equal to my own. We had all suddenly found ourselves thrust to the other side of life, into a world apart, given over naked to bestial beings like those pictured in paintings of the Buddhist hell, with buffalo or horse heads, hawk beaks, and chicken claws. We knew the date of our capture but we had no idea when, or if, we would ever escape their clutches. The big clock on the nearby cathedral struck each quarter hour, reminding me that I was there for an indefinite time. I tried to concentrate with all my might on the aged and respected Phan Van Truong’s advice when confronting our civilizers: Make it a principle to never fear another person, come what may.
One afternoon I was taken to an office, where I found myself alone with a stocky Annamite man. He wore French-style clothes and had a very sincere and courteous expression. His large black briefcase was on the desk. He invited me to sit down facing him.
My name is Le Van Kim. I’m a lawyer and I have been appointed to handle your defense.
I felt I could trust him. In a low voice, I recounted all that I had endured during the interrogations. After being cut off from the world for an eternity — a week, perhaps more — this unexpected, unhoped-for human contact meant that my link with the outside world was not entirely severed.
After the lawyer’s visit, I was transferred to the Sûreté jail, alone in a gloomy, gray, narrow room without any openings except the door to the guardroom. Yellowed cartons of files were piled against the wall. At night I explored them and discovered a comprehensive handwritten lexicon of Annamite communist terminology with French translations, including words and expressions newly introduced in underground communications since 1930. By what tortures had the enemy uncovered all these secrets?
One afternoon, I was struck with anguish when I caught a fleeting glimpse of Ho Huu Tuong crossing the courtyard in handcuffs. He had been something of a secret advisor to us.
At first contact, the guard called Tay did not seem cast in the same mold as the others. He looked calm. On his leather cigarette case I noticed an unexpected motto traced in purple ink: Chi vi thuong (“It’s because I love). He let me out to relieve myself in the lavatories across the courtyard. One morning, though, I saw this same cop in a fit of anger violently thrashing a prisoner with a broom and shouting curses at him.
A few days later we were taken to court and brought one by one before Tran Van Ty, a rat-faced judge with a puny moustache and flashing crafty eyes behind spectacles set in a thick brown tortoiseshell frame. His role was to sign warrants and entrust the Sûreté with pretrial investigations. Prisoners brought before him who had been held by the Sûreté were invariably asked: Do you abide by your confession? If the accused retracted their statements, the judge returned them to the interrogators until the spontaneous confessions extorted in the torture chambers were confirmed before him.
The judge was Annamite, but he questioned us in French. Those of us who understood that language could respond immediately. The others, instead of being questioned in Annamite, had to rely on an interpreter. As a result, from the judge’s chamber to the courtroom, anyone who didn’t know French had no idea what all the magistrates, clerks, cops and lawyers were plotting among themselves. Only when their deliberations were over did the all-powerful interpreter finally inform the prisoner whether he would be thrown into hell, or freed, or shortened by a head.
The servile dispensers of justice, whatever their color and whether Annamites, Indians or Martinicans, were often more pitiless than their white masters toward poor wretches who fell into their clutches.
Ta flamme importune, on la couvre,
On la fait éteindre aux valets. (Victor Hugo)
[They have their lackeys snuff out your troublesome flame.]*
Judge Tran Van Ty questioned me about my complaint of torture. Why would they have mistreated you if you were telling the truth? he said. One of the witnesses, a young French cop who had taken part in beating me up, interrupted: We never mistreated him. I felt caught in a snare as I signed the papers the Annamite clerk had scribbled down at the judge’s dictation. This net, a thousand invisible knots carefully woven of words, of seemingly inconsequential sentences, of innocent-looking phrases, had you tightly bound and tied. The more you struggled, the tighter you were strangled in the meshes of their legal web. Signatures were appended without other objection at the bottom of these obscure documents, and the case was closed. Then the judge told the policemen to keep us squatting in the hall and had us given pastries and hot coffee bought in town by the court attendant.
Handcuffed two by two and escorted by the same Sûreté cops, we left the court by the side door opposite the Central Prison. This short crossing to the prison on the other side of the street and away from the Sûreté’s torture chambers seemed to us like the antechamber to release.
Above the entrance to the Kham Lon (Great Prison) compound, surrounded by hideous gray walls bristling with glass shards, was a Gorgon’s head with furrowed eyebrows jutting out over two black holes, a grimacing mouth and snakes framing its face. The heavy steel door opened with a muffled rumble just enough to shove us in, then banged shut behind us. Bars everywhere. The cops took off our handcuffs and the Annamite warders in their khaki uniforms searched us under the watchful eye of the Corsican Head Guard. His pot belly wobbled under the white uniform, sleeves adorned with enormous silver braids. In exchange for our civilian clothes, we were handed rush mats and clean prison uniforms. Common-law prisoners, I later learned, were given used mats and uniforms that sometimes harbored itch-mite scabies and crabs in the seams. I received a shirt of rough dark-blue cotton with wide sleeves stopping at my elbows and a front split halfway down, barely covering my navel, and some knee-length trousers.* I probably looked like one of those monkeys that animal handlers put on show in village squares. I was given a four-by-five-centimeter wood plaque (dinhbai) bearing my four-digit prison number and the initials MAP (maison d’arrêt politique: prison for political detainees). I attached the dinhbai to a buttonhole by passing a piece of string through the hole on its top edge.
We passed the death-sentence cell. Next to the spyhole on the black iron door we could see the identity, offenses and date of sentencing of someone named Nay, an invisible man lying on a mat behind the door, his feet held in justice’s shackles while he awaited his legal murder. A narrow staircase took us to the second floor. To the right were the cells with relatively comfortable beds reserved for French prisoners (kham tay); to the left, Cells 7, 6 and 5, all opening onto a narrow courtyard girded by a wall half a man’s height and topped by a steel fence.
The guard put us in Cell 7. About twenty men, some naked to the waist, others in blue uniforms, gathered around us fraternally in the gloomy light. Once the iron door was shut, they helped us put our mats away. Old and new prisoners mingled, greeting each other like old friends with something approaching joy, but without asking any questions about identity or activities.
There were about twenty-five of us, with just enough room to move around without bumping into each other. We slept wrapped in our mats right on the concrete floor, packed in rows like sardines. The walls were painted black up to a man’s height. In one corner was a pitcher of water, in the other a latrine hole. The back wall separating us from the outside was topped by thick steel sheets with airholes the size of a finger; these holes, too high to be reached even by one prisoner standing on another’s shoulders, were our only source of daylight and air. By giving someone a leg-up, we could observe, through the narrow slit above the door, the comings and goings of new prisoners and Sûreté police.
Our fellow prisoners were peasants from Duc Hoa, arrested on May 6, 1936, by the Annamite Deputy Administrator, who had had them beaten into “talking before handing them over to the Sûreté Political Police. Nguyen Van Sang, a hearty, well-built fellow, told us about his interrogation at the Rue Catinat police station. How, under electroshock torture, he tried in vain to keep from falling to the floor. He mimed a comical version of the scene: on one bent leg with the other leg stretched forward, the big toe as though wired up to a generator, one arm stretched in front of him, the fist closed and thumb sticking out, likewise wired up to the instrument of torture.
I met Ho Huu Tuong again. I had glimpsed him in the courtyard at the Sûreté. He had been arrested a week after Lu Sanh Hanh and me in the halls of the courthouse as he was handling some matters with lawyers for our defense. Ironically, it was only there, in that tightly closed and locked prison cell, that we were finally able to come together in a group and talk freely with each other. Outside, with the constant fear of being followed, we only met in twos or at most threes, in places we hoped were unknown to the police. Another advantage of prison was that we didn’t have to worry about our daily rice. I was to experience the same exhilaration twenty years later in the sanatorium in the Pyrenees where I spent a year free from the grind of the factory. So, for the time being, there we were, a dozen companions-in-struggle with the opportunity to finally really get to know each other.
To begin with, we were filled with joy by what Ho Huu Tuong had to tell us: Two days after our arrest, during the night of June 12–13, 1936, the League* comrades who had escaped the dragnet handed out our leaflets in the city announcing that Hundreds of thousands of workers in France have gone on strike and occupied their factories. Let’s rise up in every factory, in every province and every village. We should elect worker and peasant delegates and form action committees everywhere. . . . Some of the leaflets were pasted on the newsroom wall of the Dépêche d’Indochine [Indochina Dispatch], and the newspaper published the entire text in Annamite in its June 13 number.
The widespread movement of strikes and factory occupations in France* filled us with enthusiasm and convinced us to spread the spark, with the hope of igniting the rebellious forces simmering under the surface among the workers and peasants of Indochina. Believing that the revolution had begun in France, we felt that the time had come for us colonized people to propagate it in our own countries.
Every morning the door opened around 6:30 and we went out into the courtyard. Under the watchful eye of the Annamite warder, two Cambodian common-law prisoners clambered up the steep stairs until they reached our floor, carrying water in a wooden barrel hung on a pole across their shoulders. They filled our water jug and swept the floor. Around eight o’clock the Head Guard would appear, a veritable caricature of colonial authority in his spruce white uniform, black sunglasses half-hiding his face, and cap jammed tight on his head. He was accompanied by a French guard clad in khaki with a big gun at his belt, and by a barefoot jail-boy dressed in unbleached cotton, notebook and pencil in hand. We lined up on either side of the courtyard. The Head Guard advanced slowly down the lines without looking at anyone — at least we couldn’t tell where he was looking from behind his mask. Next he entered our empty cell, peering into each corner. Then, at the same slow pace, the procession left the courtyard.
At around ten o’clock common-law prisoners, followed closely by the guards assigned to prevent any communication with us politicals, brought us our meager meal: a tub of unhusked rice and a smaller tub of fish and boiled vegetables. Everyone was issued a tin mug and a pair of bamboo chopsticks. Squatting on the ground in the courtyard around the tubs, under the hot sun, we gulped down our rations. At the end of the meal we had to return to our quarters and the courtyard was washed down by the common-law prisoners. We lined up inside, the old warder came to count us, and then the heavy iron door was closed. In the afternoon at around four o’clock we were subjected to the same counting and the iron door shut again.
With our peasant friends we discussed how to organize our communal life. Sitting on the floor in a circle, we decided on a few rules and on the election of a cell delegate — preferably someone who could speak French. Since no one volunteered for the job, I was chosen unanimously by my comrades. I was a little nervous about exactly what was expected of me and how I would go about defending everyone, alone against the warders. Do what must be done, come what may.
That afternoon, when our cell door opened, I was delegated to get us an additional jug of water. The old Annamite guard, polite and diplomatic but embarrassed by our demand, took me to the Head Guard.
The blazing sun flooded the grassy courtyard. Around all sides, a verandah bordered by yellow columns screened the doors to the disciplinary cells. In the middle of the yard stood the ochre-colored watchtower. Crossing the courtyard, we headed toward Agostini, the Head Guard. All my comrades, clinging to the courtyard fence, followed us with their eyes to see what would happen.
It was unusual for a prisoner to be taken to see the Head Guard. Agostini, astounded, found it intolerable. Red with rage, he yelled, Who allowed you to come here?
“It was . . .
He cut me short.
Forcing myself not to react, I waited, standing still against the wall facing his desk. He took a huge dusty book down from the shelf and slapped it furiously onto his desk.
“Here are the prison rules! I will apply them! I’ll have you all disemboweled by the guards! and he pointed a threatening forefinger at the Colonial Infantry’s quarters.
I remained silent, not moving an inch. The maniac calmed down.
“What do they want? he asked the old warder.
“Another jug of water, that’s all.
“We’ll see about that.
He walked toward our quarters, and we followed.
We got our extra jug of water. After that, every morning when the Head Guard and his escort came around, I listed our needs, such as aspirin or writing paper, which the jail-boy wrote down in his notebook.
* * *
The Central Prison, covering a whole block, dominated the city center. The entrance was at 69 Rue Lagrandière. It was located opposite the Hall of Justice, while to the left it was only separated from the Cochinchina Governor’s Palace by Rue Mac-Mahon. It blocked off Rue d’Espagne, a busy commercial street. The right side of the prison was separated from the Criminal Records Office laboratory by Rue Philippini, which ran parallel to Mac-Mahon. Finally, the boundaries around this singular world were marked by massive gray walls twice the height of a man, ridged with glass shards. In watchtowers on each of the three free corners, a French Colonial Infantry soldier armed with a rifle stood guard day and night. At night, every quarter hour we would hear the cry, Sentry, watch one! Sentry, watch two! From inside the prison, those of us on the upper floors could see the tops of the tamarind trees in the surrounding streets, whose falling leaves told us another year had passed. We calculated our remaining term of imprisonment in tamarind seasons.
After undergoing torture at the Sûreté headquarters, our young comrade Van Van Ky began coughing up blood and losing weight before our eyes, which made us very worried. When he started hemorrhaging, he was taken to the Cho Quan hospital. Three days later he was brought back in worse condition than before. In the hospital he first received injections, but because he struggled when they shaved his head, the doctor had him put in a straitjacket for twenty-four hours. Then they handcuffed his hands behind his back, shackled his legs, and sent him back to prison without any further medical care. Taking care of him by turns, we tried to ease his pain using traditional methods of healing by rubbing and massage. From then on, we decided we would look after each other ourselves, and we taught each other how.
One morning in early July, at ten o’clock, an Annamite warder came for Ho Huu Tuong, Lu Sanh Hanh and me. As we descended the iron stairs, we wondered whether we were being taken to a session at the Sûreté headquarters. Two plainclothes policemen were waiting for us in front of the Head Guard’s office. Had other comrades fallen into their hands, and were we being taken for a confrontation? We were handcuffed and led across the street to the courthouse to see Judge Tran Van Ty.
Because our lawyers had lodged complaints about the torture and bad treatment we had allegedly received while held at the Sûreté headquarters, Tran Van Ty said he was going to have the Sûreté searched to find the torture instruments mentioned in our statements (truck generator, rattan canes, gags, etc.). Now it’s the Sûreté’s turn to be searched, he snarled, smiling sardonically.
Then he picked up the telephone and notified Sûreté Political Chief Perroche of the search. At that point we understood that we had been assigned the role of naïve puppets in a shabby farce! Escorted by plainclothes cops, we set out for Rue Catinat in a covered truck, preceded by Tran Van Ty and his interpreter.
My heart shrank as we mounted the stairs to the torture chamber on the top floor of that gruesome building, with which we were all too familiar. As Tran Van Ty and Perroche entered the room, they motioned for us to stay outside. Suddenly I felt someone hit me hard but discreetly in my lower back: I turned to find Gélot, our torturer. I didn’t cry out. Was I afraid of retaliation? The sinister Tran Van Ty beckoned us into the room and, with a sly smile, asked us to point out the offending instruments. The cramped room was bare and unfurnished except for an old chair and a small table. The only thing left behind was the switch on the table that Gélot used to summon Chin Ngoc, the Annamite torture specialist, and in the corner to the left, the small washbasin where the interrogators washed their hands after the torture sessions. There was no trace of the huge generator. My head swirled with visions of the atrocities I had suffered; it made my flesh creep.
We could breathe again only when we had returned to the Central Prison.
*See Translators Notes.
Chapter 1 from Ngo Van’s book In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary (AK Press, 2010).
In the Crossfire is a translation of Ngo Van’s Au pays de la Cloche fêlée (Paris: L’Insomniaque, 2000) and of excerpts from Ngo Van’s Au pays d’Héloïse (L’Insomniaque, 2005). It has been edited by Ken Knabb and Hélène Fleury and translated by Hélène Fleury, Hilary Horrocks, Ken Knabb and Naomi Sager.