As we marched down the main street,
A mere tiger cub at that stage,
I recall Quintus, our mascot,
Growling, pacing his cage.
Later, myself as a ‘Tiger’,
Behind barbed wire, all around,
Trained by orders from warders,
Enclosed like a prison compound.
Other ‘tiger cages’ exist,
As a psychological tool,
Introduced first by the French,
During ‘Colonial Rule’.
Then Diem’s ‘Tiger Lady’,
The tyrannical ‘Madame Nhu’,
Extended this long reign of terror,
After Dien Bien Phu.
Now, in the bar on the top floor,
Of central Saigon’s Rex Hotel,
I listened in silence and awe,
To what this man had to tell.
As his story slowly unfolded,
Suffering effects from a stroke,
A suspicious glance all around,
A nervous twitch as he spoke.
Out in the South China Sea,
There lies a small group of isles,
Down from Vung Tau, a distance,
Of about one hundred miles.
And Con Son is one name,
Its image lingers, haunts his mind;
’Tis a painful description,
Appropriate words hard to find.
This island prison had functioned,
To hold anyone in dissent;
Like radical politicians,
Academics and monks also sent.
Twelve hours journey by ferry,
No family farewells, no good-byes;
Locked up by chains, in the darkness,
Thus avoiding all prying eyes.
Prisoners herded like cattle,
Barred holes in the roof of each cell;
Exposed to abuse from above,
A crowded real living hell.
Food and water, both rationed,
No visits or contact by mail;
Sleep deprivation and torture,
Hygiene near nil in this gaol.
’Twas ten years since its closure,
And this man’s release, from that place;
Secret chambers of horrors,
A nation’s once damming disgrace.
Although this blot ’tis omitted,
From history’s ‘white’ pages,
Black-out denials can only,
Encourage new ‘tiger cages’.
Con Son was an infamous island prison, first used by the French. Cruelty existing on the island was reminiscent of that experienced on Devil’s Island off the coast of Africa (as seen in the movie Papillon with Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen). Inmates were mainly political prisoners ... students, religious activists, academics and politicians. Today the prison is closed down and can be visited from Vung Tau by ferry or helicopter. In 1995, I listened in awe as an ex-prisoner described to me his 3 year ordeal on Con Son Island.
Whilst the prison was used by the colonial French authorities up to 1954, its use was continued under Diem and the various military regimes of South Vietnam. This continued for some time after the Communist takeover in 1975. The Communists of course had their own infamous version of Con Son prison during and after the war within the heart of their own capital city. It existed in the form of the ‘Hanoi Hilton’. The nightmarish memories of the victims of both prisons and their written and oral tales of their experiences, will hopefully ensure that their infamy will not be lost to history.
“The ‘tiger cages’ are housed in two long cement structures, each divided into thirty units. Each cage is too small for a man to lie down full length. Over the bars is a catwalk for the guards. Murder by starvation was commonly used as a punishment.”
- from Vietnam: A Reporter’s War (ABC Radio), 1975.
“Hell is empty! All the devils are here!” - William Shakespeare in The Tempest.