A day in the life of Nguyen Alexander

December 8, 2011.
° Hue, Vietnam. The dissident priest Nguyen Van Ly (64) is deported from a rest home in the archdiocese to the concentration camp Nam Ha in the north of the country. Van Ly, who is half paralyzed after having suffered four strokes, still has to spend five years in prison.
° Moscow, Russia. With a German film crew the dissident Alexander Ogorodnikov (61) revisits for the first time the ‘camp of death’ Perm 36 where he was imprisoned in the 1980s for six years.
The first man is a catholic, the other an orthodox Christian.
They have never met each other, but they are kindred spirits. Since the mid-1970s  they are fighting the same fight against a totalitarian communist regime. They both peacefully work very hard towards freedom in general and religious freedom in particular.
Their continuous fight has physically affected them. Both are partially paralyzed as a result of their imprisonment.
This double novel contains two parallel stories.
We follow Van Ly and Ogorodnikov during 24 hours while:
° a driver, a nurse and two guards accompany Van Ly during his journey by ambulance from Hue to the camp Nam Ha.
° Ogorodnikov, who is accompanied by a German journalist and a filmmaker, first takes an air plane and then a taxi to the concentration camp Perm 36.

Each book has eight chapters that follow the divine office in monasteries: the matins at midnight, the lauds at 4:30 a.m., the prime at 6:00 a.m., the tierce at 9:00 a.m., the sext at noon, the none at 3:00 p.m., the vespers at 6:00 p.m. and the compline at 9:00 p.m. 
Both trips take place at the beginning of December, during the Advent. In this liturgical period believers of the Catholic and the Orthodox Church look forward to Jesus' birth on Christmas. But what can Van Ly and Ogorodnikov still expect?

Another common thread is music. Ludwig von Beethoven’s  opera Fidelio (Ogorodnikov) and his Ninth symphony (Van Ly) play a key role.
Furthermore we can figuratively ‘hear’ on the one hand the Vespers of the Russian Sergei Rachmaninoff, and on the other hand the Peace song of the Vietnamese composer Kim Long.

The conversations portray their life story through flashbacks.
Their stories are largely parallel and result in a hopeful climax.
Both realize that their lifelong struggle was not in vain. In Vietnam a people's church massively emerges from the catacombs, while in Russia a new generation opposes the dictatorship of Vladimir Putin.

This double novel has not yet been published in English.


Chapter 1

All men become brothers

1. Midnight

“I thought Vietnam was a free country?”
   The lieutenant threateningly pushed his revolver under my chin.
   “Doesn’t article three of the constitution ensure freedom of speech, press, association and religion?" I asked him in a shrill voice.
   The man pushed me away. He didn’t understand what was happening to him. At the roadblock on the My Chang market more and more cyclists were showing up. In the morning mist they looked like ghosts to the patrol that was guarding the site.
   “The curfew. You violate the curfew” yelled the lieutenant, now gesticulating in all directions. "It lasts till six in the morning."
   “If my information is right, the curfew was lifted two years ago.”
   “Go back!” he ordered. “Go back to where you came from. Now!”
   “Why should we? We are going to worship Our Lady of La Vang.”
  In the meantime our group of pilgrims had joined us and was now in full force, responding enthusiastically.
   “Control!” the lieutenant shouted. “We are going to check everyone’s documents!”
   I showed him my temporary passport. The previous month the State Security had confiscated my ID.
   “Not valid”, he barked. The colleague he called to assist him also shook his head.
   “But don’t you know me? I am Nguyen.” I gesticulated as if I were the equal of Prime Minister Pham Van Dong.
   My humor didn’t really seem to cheer them up, and the atmosphere became downright frigid when participants without identity cards were taken away.
   I protested: “Do we really need an identity card for a one day excursion? Which article of the law did we violate?”
The last 24 hours were the most exciting of recent years. In my parish Doc So were many people who secretly prepared their first excursion since 1975.
   "Here, take my bike," whispered my neighbor. "Sixty-five kilometers is too far. Next month, I'll be 72 years and my legs ... "
   At the front of the iron horse that he entrusted me with gleamed a clawing lion under the brand name Peugeot. “Indestructible”, he boasted. “I bought it in 1939 with my first savings that I had earned in the rubber plantation.”
   I was putting the bike away in the lobby of the rectory when my colleague Tryn Van Qua entered. I had been forbidden to say Mass. Tryn Van Qua, that traitor, who was in league with the Communists, had been appointed to say Mass.
   “You have a bike?” I could see the surprise on his face.
   “I am going to repair it, tinker with it. It’s a service for my neighbour”, I lied.
   “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
   I pretended not to hear him.
   Of course I hadn’t made a request for our pilgrimage. The reply would still be “no”. Even worse, the police would have done anything to prevent it because the name of La Vang was still taboo.
   However not everyone had been notified personally. The people I had told about the pilgrimage had been sworn to secrecy, because from this secrecy depended the success of our undertaking.
   “Tomorrow, August 15, 1981, Feast of the Ascension, we will worship Our Lady of La Vang. Appointment at three o'clock in the church”, I casually said after the Mass.
   Smiles everywhere, except Van Qua and the communist agent who looked astonished. But my next announcement about the catechism classes diverted his attention.
   “Since when is Mass at three o’clock?” asked Van Qua in the vestry. “It’s normally at five o’clock!”
   “Did I say three o’clock?” I could barely hide my amusement.
   In the middle of the night cyclists silently showed up everywhere. The grapevine had done its work. I saw  radiant faces everywhere. Guided by a few lanterns the long column started moving shortly after 3am. Past the hill people burst out laughing. What a performance to quietly slip away.
   I shuttled back and forth. The pace should not be too high, because everyone at the back had to be able to follow. And when the road went uphill the young people helped the older pilgrims. Tri Hieu, my younger sister who was staying with me for a few weeks carried the red lantern. At the top of a hill I inspected my ‘troops’. Having managed to collect two hundred participants exceeded all my expectations. Ah! To breathe in free air! The adrenaline raged through my body.

   In a big cloud of dust a minivan arrived. The eight nuns of the Order of the Holy Cross weren’t allowed to continue their journey either. They were stopped at the My Chang roadblock. The driver was interrogated.
   “Look here!” the lieutenant barked. “What’s written here? You are only allowed to transport six passengers. And that’s not all, your license is only valid for the trajectory to the station of Hue.”
   “I have … the nuns … “, the man stammered.
   “Back!” the lieutenant shouted. “Go back immediately! And tomorrow you can search for another job. Your driver’s license is hereby revoked.”
   The driver and the nuns turned round, but I didn’t want to be pushed around. I put on my cassock and I told everyone to be quiet. “Friends, let us pray together. And if they don’t let us through this afternoon, we will go on praying. And if necessary we will continue praying until the evening and if need be all night!”
   I kneeled. Everyone followed my example.
   As more pilgrims arrived in My Chanh, the prayers grew louder. I was beaming when my colleague Phan Van Loi reinforced our troops with his own group.
   In the meantime the officers were panicking. There was no end to their work. What could they possibly do with the pile of identity cards? 
   Moreover they felt uncomfortable under the scrutiny of the local people because hundreds of people of My Chang and the surrounding villages and hamlets gathered around the market. Everyone was impressed by the never before seen spectacle. Fascinated by the repetitive prayer the villagers were silent and the officers perceived this as vaguely threatening.
   Suddenly the district captain of the State Security arrived in a limousine. He was a war veteran and only had one arm. “Oh, Nguyen, is that you?” he said in a friendly voice. Since my arrival in Doc So the man carefully watched my every move.
   “Comrades”, he ordered, “give him back his identity card.”
   This was my chance. “It is not enough that you give back my identity card. Everyone’s papers should be returned and you should allow us to continue our journey.”
   The captain consulted with the lieutenant for a long time. “Yes, you may continue your journey, but on foot. Don’t use your bikes.”
   People spontaneously applauded.
   The first pilgrims that got their identity back started walking. But when someone got on his bike all others followed his example. The distance to La Vang is, after all, twenty kilometers. This looked like a bicycle race. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the little freedom that had been conquered.
   Upon arrival I was delighted. Unlike the destroyed surrounding area the large mushroom-shaped steles with underneath the radiant statue of Our Lady were still standing. I let my tears flow freely and I hugged Van Loi.
   When three weeks later Van Loi starred in a parody of that pilgrimage, he was arrested on charges of propaganda against the regime. "Pray for me," he said. "They're going to destroy me," I watched helplessly when he was pushed in a police car. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.

“Where has the time gone? I still remember as if it happened today how they dragged you away thirty years ago,” I said breathlessly. The squeaky wheels of my walker were echoing down the hallway. At midnight I went to pray with Van Loi in the chapel of the Archdiocese And although it was only Thursday, I timidly lit the second candle of the Advent wreath. Of course, I looked forward to the commemoration of Jesus' birth on Christmas. But what about my future?
   Back in my room, I collapsed in my chair. It took me a few minutes to catch my breath. When ten minutes later Van Loi prepared to leave, I put on my glasses and I combed my hair with my stiff fingers. Drops of sweat glistened on his forehead, and his eyes were wet. For the first time in a long time, we hugged. He, the little priest in his black cassock, and I, slender and a head taller, in my beige pajamas.
   As I opened the door, we softly sang the Song of Peace by Kim Long:
Lord, teach me to love and serve God.
Make me an instrument of Your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love …”
   In the corridor, Lieutenant Colonel Kien, my head guard, startled as if he had been caught. He was apparently asleep. In an automatic reflex this forty year old stout man with chubby cheeks adjusted his cap and tie, and caressed his insignia: two stars and a bar.
   Leaning against the door frame I tried to give myself courage. “Our peaceful struggle for freedom continues”, I said in a firm voice.
   “Five years … Another five years in camp Nam Ha”, stuttered Van Loi. “I'm worried about your health. Will we ever see each other again?”   
   I looked him straight in the eye. "It is becoming an uphill battle, because four thromboses have me half paralyzed. We remain united in prayer, even when I will no longer be here." I turned my gaze skyward. "Then I will continue to support you, along with Nguyen Kim Dien, our murdered archbishop."
   “We continue to campaign," soothed the ever enthusiastic Van Loi. "Tomorrow I'm going to the prayer vigil at the Redemptorist monastery in Thai Ha in Hanoi and our Priest Association may only count four members: we all sign our letters in your name.”
   I nodded. But did this struggle still make any sense? Huu Giai and Tan Chin, the two other members were also old. Why doesn’t any young priest defy this regime anymore? Why should each prospective seminarian first get the ‘blessing’ of the Communist Party? When will this meddling stop?
   Van Loi pulled a small packet out of his briefcase. “For the road”, he said with a lump in his throat. In the corridor he doesn’t look back. The creaking of his sandals died out when he went down the stairs.
   I shuffled behind my walker to the window of my room and saw him step into his old Renault. How many years does he have that car now? In between the honking motorbikes that regard the broad boulevard as theirs only he drove on the bridge over the canal. Behind it the towers of the Hue cathedral are standing like lighthouses.
   On April, 30, 1974 together with three colleagues I was prostrate on the steps of the choir. My father, mother and my brothers and sisters were dressed in their best clothes in the first row. For my parents, staunch Catholics, donating their youngest son to the church was a form of extreme obedience. For me, the priesthood meant the culmination of eleven years of training.
   It all started with a letter of recommendation. I remember as if I had to deliver it yesterday.

June, 27, 1963. Above the town tower the cranes of the cathedral under construction. Shortly after noontime I rang the doorbell of the seminar. The yellow-white flags of the Vatican commemorated the silver jubilee of the Archbishop.
    A myopic hunchbacked handyman who didn’t utter a word led me to the office of President Nguyen Van Thuan. I was impressed by his room. Bookshelves along the wall contained hundreds of neatly arranged books, but chaos reigned on his writing table.
   “Never mind the mess”, he said with a disarming smile. “As editor of the magazine of the seminar I have to check all the citations and references.”
   It was with a small heart that I gave him a letter of recommendation from my priest. Already 16 years old, I was indeed a late vocation.
   “Tell me, when did you first think of becoming a priest?” This colossus with black hair and glasses with thick lenses challenged me. He sat at his desk, his back to the window and the desk lamp was pointed at my face.
   “I have been thinking about this for a long time. I’ve always loved “to play priest” for boys and girls of the neighborhood. On a kitchen chair stood a glass of water and lay a piece of bread and my mother’s missal. An old bedspread served as a chasuble.”
   I was searching for words, which rarely happened to me.
   “I have … no explanation … but the past year the dream of becoming a priest has come to the surface again.”
   “Tell me. Has something special happened?”
   “Nothing in particular. My childhood friend Truc is already in the seminary. And then there is the enthusiasm of our pastor. I want to follow in his footsteps.”
   Van Thuan put his chin between his thumb and index finger. “A sharp intelligence, great tact and a large dose of idealism. Your pastor is a classmate. Sounds like he hasn’t changed since then. That makes me happy. When belief is authentically experienced it generates enthusiasm.”
   The next question was fired. “Tell me, what do you expect from the training?”
   “I want to get to know Christ better to be able to think and act like Him. God says that you can only love Him if you love your fellow human beings, and among them especially the outcasts. I grew up in poverty, but I’ve found that you can make the poor happy by being close to them. I’m ready to sacrifice my life for this.”
   Van Thuan nodded. “Do you know why the early believers were called Christians?”
   He didn’t give me the time to answer the question.
   “Because people have recognized the doctrine of Christ in their way of living. Salt should have the taste of salt. You become a Christian only when Jesus' words also have an impact on your life. Authenticity, that’s what it is about. What matters is who you really are. Not who you claim to be. If people don’t recognize the figure of Christ in you, you are not a Christian.”
   I remained speechless while the president was absorbed in his thoughts. “The study of the Bible is so important because this unique book gives an answer to the questions of life. We must minimize the distance between the source that inspires us and our way of living. Exactly like in the time of the Old Testament we need prophets, people who teach that we should not deviate from the truth, even though our country is torn by the civil war between North and South Vietnam.”
   The meaning of his words escaped me to some extent. At the time I had too little understanding of politics. However, I felt it as an indictment of the cycle of violence plaguing South Vietnam.
   “There is only one way out”, continued Van Thuan. “We must return to the roots of our faith. Look around you. How many deaths and injuries each day? I don’t expect peace from the current leaders of North and South Vietnam. Yet I believe that peace is possible: in the first place in ourselves. When everyone is at peace with oneself, there will also be peace in our country and in the world.”
   I was impressed. Now I understood why Truc spoke so enthusiastically about Van Thuan.
   “Tell me, what was the reaction of your parents?”
   “Mama wept with happiness. For years she has been praying for a vocation in the family. Dad was not surprised. 'I just hope that your temper will not play tricks,' he said.”
   “We will soon know who we are dealing with.”
   I felt that he was seeing right through me. His handshake upon departure has long vibrated in me.
   “Come back next month for the entrance exam.”
   With a warm feeling I followed the hunchbacked man down the long hallway to the front door. I turned around one last time. Soon I would receive the confirmation of the choice I had made in the depths of my heart.

On the street, I saw for the first time American advisers equipped with modern amenities. One of their jeeps stopped. A soldier with a khaki beret talked with colleagues via a walkie-talkie. I only understood a few fragments of sentences, because I only knew a few words of English.
   Americans instilled confidence in me. Was it because of their striking presence? Or because they were our brothers in Christ? That day, I was convinced that they would beat the hated Communists of the Vietcong.
   In my head echoed the words "Ich bin ein Berliner" that John F. Kennedy had said that same day during his speech at the Berlin Wall. To me, the President of the United States was a South Vietnamese. Day by day I saw the American influence grow. There weren’t only military advisers; there were also stacks of boxes of corned beef in the stores. Although this boiled beef has a salty taste, I loved to eat it. There was a whole ritual to follow before eating it. With the key that was attached to it, the can was slowly opened. We ate the meat in the U.S. military fashion: with mustard, pickles, onions and bread.
   At the same time we were asking ourselves whether more military force could lead to peace. Was the violence in any way justifiable? Because you had to be blind not to see that the U.S. involvement in the war was imminent.
   Moreover, the streets bathed in an oppressive atmosphere as the country was already in an uproar for two weeks. In a heavy-handed police action against a peaceful demonstration of Buddhists a woman and eight children had been killed. They had asked for the lifting of the ban to hoist their flags on the occasion of the anniversary of the birth of Buddha. The photo of a monk who had set himself on fire was front page news everywhere in the world.

On the steps of the cathedral I witnessed a new Buddhist demonstration. Followed by a crowd of thousands of people monks in their orange robes proudly displayed their flags with the great wheel of the Dharma that symbolizes the teachings of Buddha. The spokes of the wheel evoke the eightfold path that each disciple traverses during his lifetime.
   Hundreds of heavily armed policemen in the middle of the bridge of the European quarter clearly signaled that the protesters were not allowed to go to the center. And although they did not have the intention to travel to this part of the city, the police charged. What a provocation! Especially the sacred flags of the Buddhists were targeted. The cries of fear and panic were deafening. My stomach turned when a bald monk and a woman holding up a protest sign were beaten up before my eyes. I had to run away to avoid being beaten, too.

Nothing justified such repression. What had been expected for months had finally happened. President Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated in a coup, but his death did not announce the return of peace. South Vietnam became bogged down in a political stalemate, and civil war became more terrible every day.
   Almost all of my childhood memories are about this violence. After all, I lived near the demarcation line with the communist North Vietnam. Any trip to Hue was dangerous. Each trip to Hue was strewn with dangerous pitfalls: on the road leading to the town sabotage, bombings and firefights took place almost every day.
   Like on January 30, 1964. I will never forget it.

I was sitting in the bus, on the way home for the annual vacation, when an ambulance with a shrill siren accompanied by two jeeps with South Vietnamese soldiers sped past us.
   “Once again something terrible has happened”, I told my neighbour. “Hopefully it isn’t too bad.”
   I held my breath when a little further our bus was stopped by soldiers. On a stretch of road I saw pools of blood and spent bullet casings. A doctor and two nurses were trying to resuscitate the victims, but they had arrived too late on the scene.
   Despite the ban, I managed to sneak up to the door of the bus.
   “Stop or I'll shoot!” The soldier pointed his rifle barrel at me, but his hands were shaking.
   I looked him straight in the eyes and felt that he was more scared than me. "I am a seminarian." My voice became louder. “These are not animals, but people. I'm going to say a prayer for them and sign their forehead with the sign of the cross. That is my moral duty.”
   With great difficulty I finally got close to the victims. On the side of the road the corpses were covered with sheets that immediately became red. I kneeled in front of a girl who was about eight years old. She was still holding on to her doll. Her face was partially blown off.
   I became livid. I raised my hands to the sky and began to cry. This was the first time since my childhood that I was physically confronted with death again. The only question that haunted my mind is: "Why?" I caught a cold sweat when I realized that this attack took place there just ten minutes ago. The unit of Viet Cong obviously had already disappeared.
   The next day I read a short article in the newspaper. The district officer and his wife were killed, along with three bystanders. The provincial governor praised " this conscientious man with a great sense of responsibility ." On the same page was a picture of a government official who was murdered in Saigon the day before.
   I was shocked. These were ‘faits divers’. Didn’t the South-Vietnamese army as well as the Vietcong conduct daily raids? This was unbearable. As if these bystanders had just been unlucky. The wrong people in the wrong place. Didn’t they have parents? And what would the future hold for their children now? The image of the little girl with her doll didn’t leave me.
   Meanwhile, the coup by General Nguyen Khanh got all the attention. In empty phrases the man with the goatee and the uniform with three stars promised a better future. I felt that he was even more corrupt than his predecessors he had executed.
   “Never will I use a weapon”, I promised myself. Easy to say, of course, because as a seminarian I was exempt from military service. As a priest, I wanted to commit myself body and soul to the poor and fight for peace with non-violent methods. Even before I celebrated my seventeenth birthday my life’s goals were firmly set.

With a thud, the little bundle of Van Loi fell from my hand. As always at the slightest noise in my room Lieutenant Colonel Kien immediately burst into my room. This was called house arrest.
   The man yawned. His guard duty was almost over. As he had been taught he kept his right hand on his shiny revolver. It hung prominently on his belt next to the golden buckle. Communists know how to intimidate people. They constantly showed me that I’d better not flee.
   “Shouldn’t you say goodbye?” I said, not without a touch of malice.
   Kien turned around and left the room. He would  be going to the Nam Ha camp, where he’d lead a different life, but he was too proud to show any emotion and too loyal to the system to which he owed everything.

Especially at night at the seminary we heard the impact of the bombs in the distance. The demarcation line was just forty miles away as the crow flies. With incessant bombing the U.S. president, Lyndon B. Johnson, wanted to get the Communists on their knees.
   Yet, in our closed world, the war was far away. We didn’t have much time to worry. The well-filled days followed a tight schedule. Getting up at five o'clock and breakfast after Mass followed by meditation. An hour of study was followed by four hours of lessons, lunch, afternoon rest, one hour study and again four hours of lessons. Then we played football and had a shower before dinner. After the Complines (evening prayers) we studied until it was time to go to sleep.

“Self-control, that's what is important. It is important to learn to control yourself and not immediately yield to the whims," said President Van Thuan. " The voluntary celibacy is part of the priesthood. A priesthood in which you must pursue asceticism, also in food and drink.”
   Pursuing asceticism is really not difficult in a seminary! Regarding celibacy, I faced the future with confidence and I relied on the state of grace. We provided the necessary humor. This puts the problems in their proper proportions.
   “Every human being sooner or later falls in love in his life”, said Van Thuan. “Yes, that could also happen to a seminarian or a priest. It hits you before you notice it. However, succumbing to this temptation is venturing on a slippery slope. It is best not to show that love, because as soon as the feeling is mutual, you attract unexpected trouble. You lose your serenity, balance and inner peace. And you become unhappy. But be aware that these feelings wear off, love is like water paint, it disappears after a while”
   Through the study of philosophy and theology, through services, reading and personal conversations we learned to think and pray. Furthermore, we learned how to preach, and we were also introduced to catechesis and Gregorian chant. I was beginning to form my spirituality and the development of personal prayer.
   No, things were not always easy. The most difficult time was when fellow students gave up. They realized after an internal struggle that the priesthood was not really for them and left. It stunned me every time, because during our stay in the seminary a personal relationship had developed.
   “I'm leaving tonight.” Truc bowed his head and wept softly.
   We grew up as neighbors and I joined him here when he was already in the seminary for four years. But now we went our separate ways. I could hardly believe it. I hugged him for several minutes. “I felt in recent months that your thoughts were often elsewhere. Life is simply a series of ups and downs. You think I have never doubted?”
   “After what happened to my dad, I felt an enormous need for affection and tenderness”, said Truc. “No, I don’t think I can handle celibacy. I can’t live in solitude. With you it’s different. You 're so much stronger mentally. You draw strength from the silence, while I lose myself in the silence.”
   The bell rang. The study started. Upset, I was the last person to enter the study room. Truc Trick saw that and before leaving, he sneaked into the study and put his passport photo on my table. On the back of the photo he had written: "My heart will always be with you”. The only time I ever saw Truc again was on the occasion of his marriage in Saigon.
   For months I was struggling with myself. Fortunately, I could fall back on the president of the seminary, my spiritual director, Van Thuan. I drew a lot of strength from regularly confessing and I learned how to meditate. Given my temperament this was not obvious. I created silence in my heart, pushed everything aside and I thought about my inner evolution. I learned to speak with the “Other”, the great mystery about whom Jesus says He is a Father. I tried to feel His presence. To give content to my meditation, I prepared the meditation the night before with an iron discipline. To this day, I still continue to note a thought before bedtime.
   Although speaking was only allowed after breakfast and during recreation, the atmosphere was much more joyful than the majestic walls of the seminary suggested. The laughter of more than a hundred novices in the prime of their life filled the halls. The mentality was broad-minded and there was an atmosphere of trust. The training was good, but most professors weren’t towering above us.
   Still, some didn’t allow themselves to be pushed around. In the course of canon law, for example the teacher interrupted his lesson whenever I started chatting. 
   “Mr. Nguyen. Can I ask you a quick question?”
   Of course I didn’t know the answer to the question.
   “Nothing?" Then he submitted the same question to my neighbor. "Again silence?" He triumphed.
   “Gentlemen, this is to say that I'm the boss here.”

Near the seminary, in the heart of the European district of Hue, the broad boulevards and colonial buildings still breathed the grandeur of French imperialism. The Quoc Hoc school was located on the bank of the Perfume River. This is the school attended by princes and children of Mandarins, which included future communist leaders Ho Chi Minh and Pham Van Dong.
   Every Sunday afternoon I walked, first with Truc and after his departure alone, to the imperial citadel on the other side of the river. This complex was built after the unification of Vietnam in 1802. Although China was our hereditary enemy, the Emperor was inspired by the Forbidden City in Beijing. The beating heart, the 'forbidden' Purple City, was exclusively reserved for the emperor and his entourage.
   But the area was in decline when I went there for the first time. In this haven of tranquillity reigned birds and butterflies at daytime.

The door of my room swinged open. The doorknob slammed against the wall. 
   My frightened body guard Phuc, who took over from the Lieutenant Colonel, didn’t see me in bed, but standing in front of the window. “Damn it, you’re not sleeping yet?”
   “Did you think that I had run away?” I said grinning. “That would be bad for your career!”
   The man shook his head. "Go to bed. Tomorrow I'll call you at five.”
   “I already know that you monitor me day and night, but that the regime now also determines when I should go to bed is new to me. It would not surprise me to learn that the newly appointed parliament of puppets is thinking about this. All communists are obsessed with the idea that citizens should be more restricted.”
   My aversion to this uncouth greasy pompadour with the rank of sergeant is stronger than myself. He thinks that he can look forward to a great career by faithfully serving his paymasters. “How old are you, that you think you can lecture me?”
   He adjusted the tie of his green uniform. “Born in 1968 when the Tet offensive marked the end of American imperialism”, he beamed with a greasy smile.
   I turned my head. His breath stank. He hadn’t brushed his teeth for weeks.
   “What do you know about Tet, except for the fables in the falsified history books?”
   As he was unable to imagine a response, Phuc was pissed off and returned to his chair in the corridor.

Tet is the beginning of the new lunar year and of springtime, but also the feast of ancestor worship. This is embedded in the soul of every Vietnamese.
    I helped mom clean the family grave and we decorated our house and the family altar. Pictures of our deceased grandparents placed on shelves radiantly smiled at us.
   “We offer incense sticks , fruits and flowers to appease the spirits of our ancestors”, Mom explained, “because they still affect our lives.”
   The whole family was there, also my brother who was twenty years older than me with his family. He came all the way from Saigon for this occasion. Uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces joined us at the festive table. The family home was bursting at the seams. We didn’t often come together, but it always was a cordial reunion. For a while the war was forgotten and joys and sorrows are shared. To grandfather and grandmother, this was the most beautiful day of the year.
   Everyone brought food. And after drinking several glasses of 'bia hoi' the atmosphere was boisterous. When my oldest brother began to sing we shrieked with laughter.
   I wished Mom and Dad a prosperous and happy life. Finally I got my long awaited gift. I opened it in an instant. The uncle, who was my godfather, had built a wooden toy car. I was proud as a peacock. This was my dearest possession.
   I was allowed to stay up until after midnight. Before the altar of the family, we gave thanks to our ancestors. At midnight we finished the feast with a round and a square rice cake. Exceptionally this night the men drank ‘ruou de’. This rice alcohol was served in porcelain cups: family heirlooms that were only used once a year.
   Then the village feast started. Open-mouthed I watched the fireworks.
    “The evil spirits flee at the sound of firecrackers”, Mum said while she put me to bed. I held on to my wooden car while I fell asleep.

Each year we eagerly looked forward to the biggest feast of the year, also in 1968 when the seminary, as every year, closed its doors for two weeks. Traditionally this feast was regarded as a short-term respite during the civil war. I celebrated Tet for the first time with my older brother in Saigon. But while we were watching the fireworks at midnight we heard the impact of bombs at the same time. In a surprise attack by the Vietcong a hundred barracks, police stations and government buildings were attacked. One of the targets was the presidential palace. The garden was a stone's throw from the apartment where I was staying. All night we heard explosions and machine-gun fire.
   Luckily I was not in Hue. There, thousands of civil servants, politicians, religious leaders and even foreigners were executed, burned alive or bound hand and foot and dumped in mass graves.
   The Vietcong was hoping for a spontaneous popular uprising, but that never happened. Quite the contrary, the reaction of Americans and South Vietnamese was more unexpected. I saw trucks carrying loads of killed Vietcong fighters to mass graves. I still shiver when I recall that image. Any form of humanity had disappeared.
   When the media widely reported these “successes”, I realized that the positive information about the war I grew up with were lies. The "good cause" for which they fought was nothing more than ideological propaganda.
   I was sure about this. The Tet Offensive was a turning point. Despite their superior weaponry the Americans were hit in their heart. The incessant bombing had not destroyed North Vietnam. Quite the contrary was true. Five years after my first encounter with American soldiers I realized that they could not possibly win the war. I didn’t like their corned beef anymore. Although they were decimated, the communist Viet Cong were the moral victors.

I'm lying on my bed, but cannot sleep.
   In the closet with the door slightly ajar, I see the glow of the streetlights on my black cassock. I will surely pack my cassock in my suitcase tomorrow.
   Moments later, I get up. I carefully fold my cassock and rub the buttons. I don’t have to count them. There are 33 buttons, as are the number of years in Jesus’ life.
   No, I do not regret that I followed in His footsteps. If I had to start all over again, I'd do the same. Even when I know that anyone who consistently defends the truth is still being mercilessly persecuted. The past two thousand years little has actually changed. The Communists do not kill us, but let us rot slowly, as if we were lepers of modern times.

My cassock still felt new when I in 1968 I entered the major seminary. I only had little time to unpack all my stuff, because we were immediately expected in the chapel for a ceremony. A prayer formula in Latin was followed by a sweep with the aspergillum. After the ordination I could finally wear my cassock.
   Back from the chapel the ‘transformation’ took place. Civilian clothes were stored in the closet and I put on a cassock. Closing all the buttons was a complicated chore and also putting on the Roman collar was not easy: it takes getting used to.
   In full regalia, we were ready for our first public appearance. Doesn’t one say: fine feathers make fine birds? I was the first to enter the recreation area. The older study companions judged me, their words laced with witticisms.
   Someone pulled on the rope around my waist while another observed: "There is water in your basement”. He pulled down my cassock.
   When my colleagues trickled in they also were noisily and critically judged.

The black robe was an outward sign of our dignity. We now belonged to a privileged caste. On the street, some bowed or removed their hats, while others made a detour so as not to cross me or looked upon me as a marginalized person.
   According to the beliefs of the time, people dressed in a cassock were above the common man and knew everything better. The priest then officiated in the church with his back turned to the people and still climbed the pulpit.
   But I especially wanted to mingle with people and lead by example in the fight against poverty and for peace and justice. This difference of opinion led to heated discussions with the person responsible for the spiritual training. This "holy priest" had a penchant for sentimental devotion.

"You always think you know everything better," said the professor as the umpteenth debate reached a boiling point. His textbook plopped down on the desk.
   “"Revolutionary! Your place is in the army and not in the seminary. Where are we going if devotion to Mary and the saints no longer occupies a central place in the life of priests!”
   “The saints and especially Our Lady of La Vang are dear to me, but this devotion only fuels my commitment. Our mission is rooted in the real world, right?”
   The bell signaled the end of the course. I was the last person to leave the classroom.
   “Professor”, I said, “for months now I have followed your lessons with a bitter feeling. I want to discuss that matter with our president.”
   “After the compline.”
   “Tell me what bothers you.” Nguyen Van Thuan listened to the arguments of both parties. After some thought, he said: "The image of God... Every believer tries to grasp it. Some do that through contemplation, others by action. At first sight, your ideas are diametrically opposed, but that is not so. You are both climbing the same mountain, but from different sides. Both of you hope to reach the top. But the top remains inaccessible because God is infinitely greater than we are.”
   I was impressed by so much wisdom and insight.
   “Asking which one of the two paths is the best is a false question”, he continued. “The most important thing is to allow the Spirit of God to penetrate deep within yourself.” Van Thuan began to look for something on his always chaotic desk. “That booklet. Where did I put it? I recently read the writings of 13th century Persian writer Muhammad Rumi.” Van Thuan took off his glasses. “I believe the mystics come the closest to God in all religious traditions” Moments later, he found what he wanted and began to read: “I have traveled the world seeking God and I have not found him anywhere. When I came back home, I saw him at the door of my heart. And He said, " Here I have been waiting for you for eons’. Then I entered the house with Him.”
   “One way. There is only one way to happiness. That is to find God in yourself. That's the point.”
   I got up and bow.
   ” One moment," the president ordered. "Before you leave, I want you to listen to a a piece of music that sums up everything and will give you food for thought.”
   He set up his old phonograph and took a vinyl record with the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven in a performance of Herbert von Karajan.
   “At the time of the completion of his last symphony Beethoven was completely deaf but it became his crowning achievement. This work reflects his suffering and despair, but especially his dream that one day all men will become brothers. Listen to the finale!”
            “Your magic brings together
            What custom has sternly divided.
            All men shall become brothers,
            Wherever your gentle wings hover.
Without a word, we returned to our room.
I went back in bed and turn painfully on one side. Because of my paralysis, it was difficult to find the right position for sleeping. The twilight lit up a photo on the wall of my inspiring example: Redemptorist brother Van.
   In 1955, the Communists in Hanoi sentenced him to fifteen years' hard labor. After suffering torture and brainwashing, and having been locked in solitary confinement in a reeducation camp, he died four years later due to tuberculosis.
   What fascinates me about him is his consistent peaceful thinking and acting. The word "compromise" was not in his dictionary. This is how I want to live and how I am still living even though now I have learned that I will pay with my life for this attitude.


Chapter 2

2. Five o’clock

“It’s time!”
   Still half asleep I pretended that I didn’t hear Phuc.
   “Damn it. We leave in one hour.”
   When he grabbed me by my pajamas I pushed him away. “You’ve right to touch me.”
   Getting up was difficult. The Song of Peace by Kim Long still lingered in my head: “Make me an instrument of Your peace”. I thought of Van Loi who was now attending a prayer vigil in Hanoi.
      I was still sitting on the edge of the bed when the secretary of the archbishop knocked on the half-open door. My Advent wreath wobbled when the door swung open. The light of the lamp illuminated the purple ribbon, a symbol of penance and repentance. I realized that my penance was to begin today. But will the Communists ever repent?
   “Dearest colleague. I bring you greetings from our archbishop, who wishes you a safe journey”, said the man hesitantly as he put his hands around mine.
   “Why does he not come himself to wish me a safe trip?”
   “Monsignor wanted to greet you personally yesterday” The secretary tried to calm me down. “But his visitors stayed longer than expected.”
   Any explanation is OK. The archbishop knows that I never go to bed before midnight. Does he not understand the importance of this moment? This is my farewell to Hue. My rickety body will not survive another five years of imprisonment.
   “What new compromise did he sign with the Communists?” was my biting commentary.
   “Now you are imagining things. His uncle and aunt from Da Nang were visiting him. You know very well that Monsignor is an advocate of the soft approach because this produces better results than your hard line. Religious freedom has increased in recent years.”
   “Don’t make me laugh. What does this freedom mean? Even before the sun has risen, I will return to the concentration camp.”
   “Pessimism does not help us move forward. After 35 years we are once again active in schools, hospitals, orphanages and institutions for the disabled. And we also take care of HIV patients. The six seminaries count 1,500 candidates for the priesthood and the restrictions on the pilgrimage to La Vang, which is so dear to you, have been lifted.”
   “A nothing makes you happy. Lenin believed that the idea of ​​the existence of God is an unspeakable horror and an awful plague. And the current rulers are still as merciless as their mentor. You don’t try to reach a compromise with a regime that for decades has destroyed every form of religion and now makes some opportunistic concessions.” I pointed to the cathedral. “How many Catholics who desperately had taken refuge there during the Tet Offensive were killed? Four hundred?”
   “Dearest colleague”, let us not quarrel when we say goodbye, “sighed the secretary, while he helped me to button my shirt.
   “Don’t bother too much, because tonight I’ll have to wear prison clothes.”
   “Remember the good times. You had a good time here anyway, right? After your stroke we’ve taken good care of you.”
   His smooth talking got on my nerves.
   “In the refrigerator in the kitchen you will find a portion of banh khoai, " he whispered. “You’ll like that pancake. Next to it is a jar of your favourite peanut sesame sauce.”
   “Thanks for that last supper.”
   “Look at things positively, dear colleague." He tried to reassure me “Do you know that …”
   “You can talk, you. How many years have you spent in the camps? Since the Communist takeover in 1975, my counter indicates eighteen. With an additional fourteen years of house arrest with greased pompadours who watch you day and night.”
   I fulminated against Phuc, who was intently listening to our conversation, his pointed chin in the door opening.
   “Can you count how long I’ve lived in freedom?" I sneered “Do you know how to count?”

During the final offensive of 1975 the retreat of the South Vietnamese troops without the backing of the air force was a debacle. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were killed or captured during desperate fighting. On March 30, the port city of Da Nang, where two million refugees had gathered fell.
   The road to Saigon was now wide open. While some units with the courage of despair offered resistance, the country fell into the grip of a fear psychosis. It was buzzing with rumors of massacres in the conquered territories. Day by day these stories became more gruesome. But who could distinguish truth from fiction? An unstoppable refugee flow moved from the north to Saigon.

“I’ve only ten employees left," said Archbishop Nguyen Kim Hue in a panicky voice on the phone. "And only 7 of my 120 priests remained at their posts. All the others have fled. Is your presence as chaplain of the Society of Missionaries in Saigon still necessary? Over here in Hue you would be of great help.”
   “No one is irreplaceable," I answered him.
   In Saigon, I used my last money to buy a plane ticket to Da Nang. Dressed in my cassock, I took the last flight to the north with a few other passengers.
   The customs officers didn’t trust me. They stuck their nose in a small bottle of holy oil and rummaging through my bag they only found some clothes, a prayer book and a copy of the New Testament.
   On arrival troop movements severely disrupted my onward journey. It took me seven days to travel the last hundred kilometers. I travelled by car, by push cart and in a railway carriage that was pulled by a horse. A rusty bicycle I found collapsed after a few kilometres. Along the way I took care of wounded and administered the last rites to the dying. Some scenes seemed to come straight out of the Apocalypse, the description of the end of the world by the Evangelist John.
   As I didn’t even have a single piastre, I managed to pay room and board by working one night in the kitchen of a restaurant. The next day I exchanged my New Testament against a bowl of pho soup.
   “It’ll help you overcome the bad times”, I told the woman.
   She smiled. This was the first smile I saw in weeks.
   I continued my journey on foot and I was swimming in the South China Sea when an army patrol turned up. Luckily I stayed out of their sight.
   A fisherman took me to the port of Thuy Duong. The first North Vietnamese soldiers I met were courteous. They allowed me to continue my journey to Hue.
   On March 25 I arrived in the Archdiocese of Hue. The hunchback doorman thought I was crazy, but the Archbishop cordially welcomed me.

The next day, long columns of North Vietnamese troops marched through the European neighborhood. At the same place where twelve years earlier I had seen American advisers brimming with confidence, I now saw silent and shabbily dressed soldiers marching through town. Their health was visibly affected by their stay in the jungle.
   In the south, hundreds of thousands of people, led by President Nguyen Van Thieu left the country. However, many people didn’t succeed in leaving the country. On April 30, Communist troops marched through the deserted streets of Saigon.

"Are you ready?" asked Kien in his plush ironed uniform and Sunday shirt. The man exuded a sense of responsibility. Reportedly, he studied at the Institute of Marxist-Leninist Studies in Hanoi, the breeding ground of party leaders. But he has had to take a step back. What happened? He never said a word about it.
   I put my cassock in my bag, as well as some clothes, toilet utensils, my missal, photos and Van Loi’s gift. In the small pile of letters, my eyes were drawn to the picture of my first holy communion, a few letters from mom when I was in seminary and in the camps, and congratulations on my ordination. In an envelope with the coat of arms of the Archdiocese was my appointment as secretary of Archbishop Nguyen Kim Dien.

“Bring a message of reconciliation and cooperation , " the Archbishop recommended when he asked me to write a draft for an open letter to the new rulers.
   “Already an expression of sympathy for the Communists?”
   “No, I’ve seen too many horrors. But you noticed in the eyes of the North Vietnamese soldiers who marched in the streets here that they are downright tired of this war. Finally peace and tranquility can return. We must insist on religious freedom which is guaranteed by the Constitution of North Vietnam.”
   “Don’t delude yourself. I don’t trust the Communists at all.”
   “Give them the benefit of the doubt.” 
   But the day after the distribution of the letter the Secret Service arrived. At the front door an armed unit checked all visitors, while two soldiers stood guard in front of the office of the Archbishop. He was interrogated by two men.
   I regularly peeked in the hallway, but the situation remained unchanged for hours. Around noon, I took a folder under my arm and I went to this office.
   “Monsignor has to sign these letters.”
   A soldier knocked on the door and an interrogator came out. Through the half-open door, I saw the dazed Archbishop.
   “The outgoing mail”, I stammered.
   “The Archbishop currently has other things on his mind.”
   “Should I come back later?”
   “Everything depends on his cooperation. We're not on the same wavelength yet, but we’ll get there”, said the man laughing. “I’ll let you know when we’re ready.”
   At eight o’clock in the evening the interrogators finally left.
   The archbishop looked like a beaten dog. "This is absurd! I had to answer the same questions in writing over and over again. The versions were compared, and a discussion then ensued about the differences.”
   The next day, the Secret Service came back for the next session.
   The interrogations continued for 120 days. I learned what psychological terror means.

As after the Communist takeover pastoral life largely came to a standstill, I didn’t have much to do. I often walked in the streets of Hue. There hung the smell of burnt books At public burnings the collections of universities, libraries and individuals went up in flames..
   All newspapers, including my familiar newspaper Tin Sang, were banned. In kiosks one could only buy Nhan Dan, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, and the daily newspaper of the Youth League. There were also stacks of books for sale with the writings of Ho Chi Minh, Marx, Engels and Lenin and books about the achievements of the Communist Party.
   “Have you sold much today?” I asked the seller.
   The man didn’t reply. 
In theaters American films were replaced by Soviet films. On TV the English Channel 11 disappeared from the airwaves and on May 1, 1975, the day after the fall of Saigon, North-Vietnamese presenters with their typical accent replaced their colleagues from the South on the popular Channel 9. On the radio pop music disappeared and gave way to songs praising Ho Chi Minh, socialism and revolution. In order to ensure that the message penetrated in the minds loudspeakers were placed in the streets at every twentieth house. Members of the Youth League cut the long hair of passersby.
   I was perplexed by the clever form of State control that quietly usurped our society. Communist administrators were appointed in our orphanages, nursing homes and institutions for the disabled. And the teachers of Catholic schools were sent to re-education camps.
   “As soon as their minds are purified from the cultural and ideological contamination of which they have been victims, they can get back to work”, smiled the inspector whom I questioned.
   Their place was taken by North Vietnamese teachers who often settled in the homes of their former colleagues. The children learned militant communist songs and had to report what their parents spoke about at home.
   The Office for Religious Affairs with a branch in every village, supervised the religions. The seminaries became training centers for communists and all religious properties were nationalized.
   To make way for the invasion of North Vietnamese and to relieve the cities, millions of South Vietnamese were ordered to move to the New Economic Zones. For the deported Catholics abandoned to their fate I wrote with some colleagues the manual I live happily.
   On The Voice of America Thich Quang Do, the leader of the underground association of Buddhists said: “We will never become slaves of the Communist Party.” He was arrested the same day. In protest against the religious persecution twelve Buddhist monks and nuns set themselves on fire.
   A week before the fall of South Vietnam, Pope Paul VI had appointed Nguyen Van Thuan, my spiritual advisor at the seminary, Archbishop of Saigon. But he also ended up behind bars. Later I put the messages he had written in prison in the book The Road to Hope.

“Prime Minister Pham Van Dong is willing to receive you, Monsignor.” I gave him the letter.
   “That surprises me. I never thought he was going to answer my letter. But I want you to come with me.”
   The rainy season has just ended when we took the train to Hanoi on a sunny November morning.
   “Our security is guaranteed”, I said in a whisper. I had recognized four agents of the secret service in our wagon. We communicated in writing, exchanging small pieces of paper.
   At the station, the secretary of the Archbishop of Hanoi awaited us.
   “Finally we can talk freely," sighed Dien in the office of his colleague. But the man pointed his finger to the ceiling and the wall. Here every conversation was overheard.
   “Shall we prepare ourselves for the six o'clock Mass?” The Archbishop of Hanoi winked.
   “It's only half past five”, I remarked.
   “It is necessary to prepare well for the service”, Monsignor Dien said, poking me in my back. The vestry was the only place where they could talk freely.
   I stood guard in the choir and I knocked on the door when two acolytes, of course secret agents, arrived.
   When the Mass started I noticed that my boss had lost his composure.
   After dinner, we walked in the garden. “After the Communist takeover in 1955 terrible things have happened here”, he whispered, distressed. “The church has been decimated. and I fear that we do not understand very well what is awaiting us. The Communists have only one goal: to exterminate all religions.”
The office of Prime Minister Pham Van Dong in a former French residence was crammed with books. We noticed the works of all the great French writers: Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.
   What made ​​this son of a Mandarin who also is a renowned Francophile? After graduating from the college Quonc Hoc Hue, the best school in the country, he fought in the jungle against the French and the Americans, and now he had been over twenty years at the head of a regime that is more repressive than any previous. But impressed by his multitude of advisors, I didn’t have the courage to ask that question.
   Dong didn’t address the question of attending the Synod of Bishops in Rome "We regret that we cannot guarantee your safety abroad.”
   All other issues were also systematically rejected.
   After ten minutes, Van Dong rose and bowed. "I beg your pardon, but I have to attend another meeting. I wish you every success.” On the way out the Prime Minister added: “Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have other questions.”
   We were bemused.
   “Why didn’t you speak about the suffering of the Christians?” I asked Dien.
   For the first time since I know him, he thundered: “Do you want to make my life impossible? And that I suffer the same fate as Nguyen Van Thuan?”
   It was a sad return journey. The Archbishop had forgotten how to laugh. After having been cross-examined for four months, he was now publicly humiliated. Retreated into his office he became very silent.
   Meanwhile, I represented the archdiocese at the meetings of the Fatherland Front. The meetings of the umbrella organization of the Communist associations started by singing the song Ten thousand years. That hymn wishes Ho Chi Minh longevity. When singing the refrain the participants waved their hands in the air.
   I observed this artificial enthusiasm with arms crossed. When someone scolded me, I answered: "Nothing in this world lives for ten thousand years. Am I correct in saying that Mr. Minh has died in 1969?”

“Hm, do you want me to carry your suitcase? "asked Kien.
    I shook my head. "It is not heavy. There are no straitjackets or handcuffs in it”
   The Lieutenant Colonel remained silent. He knew that at this early hour the slightest reaction led to a litany of complaints. He went into the kitchen, took a cup of coffee and read the newspaper of the Fatherland Front.
   “I’ve come for my Last Supper”, I said when I wandered into the kitchen. On the front page I saw a picture of Vice-President Ha Van Nui. The drool ran out of that man's mouth. From the headline I inferred that he had exchanged experiences about religion and ethnicity in Laos.

   “What's going on? The Fatherland Front is also interested in religion?” 
   Because there was no reaction from him, I went a step further. “Shall I tell you something you don’t know yet?”
   This time he looked up.
   “In April 1977 when you were still in elementary school, learning about Marxism-Leninism, Archbishop Nguyen Kim Dien denounced the treatment of Catholics as second-class citizens at a meeting of the Fatherland Front. As the director of the seminary and I distributed hundreds of copies of the text at home and abroad, we disappeared behind bars. I got twenty years.”
   Kien put down his newspaper. “Hm, and how many have you actually done?”
   “Four months. Thanks to international protests after the admission of Vietnam to the United Nations, I was released on Christmas Eve. Although, free? I was under house arrest in So Doc parish. Since then, I am also forbidden to say Mass and preach.”
   Shaking his head, Kien plunged his head into the newspaper.

In my mind I returned to Doc So. I managed to survive there by selling vegetables and flowers. And with the gifts that I received I bought study materials for children from the poorest families.
   One day I asked the parishioners: “Next Sunday take your pick-axe and your hoe and follow me after Mass.” Together we cultivated the confiscated land of the Church, although we were offered a smaller lot that was less fertile and further away by way of compensation.
   The next day, the village leaders called me to account while I was playing dominoes in the parish house with some young people.
   Impassive, I kept on playing.
   My neighbor said: “There is no Nguyen here, only Reverend Nguyen.”
   The village leader repeated: “I want to talk to the Reverend.”
   He immediately exploded: “What gives you the right to farm government land?”
   “Then answer the letter I sent you three weeks ago. Silence means consent. We could not wait any longer because the planting season has started. And please excuse me now, my playing partners expect me to play now.”

My peaceful struggle for religious freedom began in my first parish. I never asked for permission for my activities, nor did I ever draw up ​​a list with the names of the participants in the Masses and the Bible classes.
   In my first manifesto, Seven just and reasonable points, I listed the violations of human rights and listed the measures that restrict religious freedom. But how could I publish it? Van Loi gave a copy to the international human rights organizations. And Tri Hieu, my youngest sister, brought me an old speaker of our former parish. I hung it in the steeple of the church and I myself read the text of the Manifesto through a microphone. This way I also broadcasted the Vietnamese programs of Radio Veritas, a Catholic radio station in the Philippines.

I continued to challenge Kien and asked: "What do you know about me?"
   I love to sow doubt in the mind of my head guard.
   “As from 1992 and after nine years in the camps, I was again placed under house arrest in the Archbishop's Palace where we are now. Don’t look so surprised! Here I wrote the Ten Point Programme: my indictment against the harmful effects of religious politics. Without being noticed, my colleague Van Loi, who has visited me not later than yesterday, managed to distribute hundreds of copies. Your intelligence network has never known this. There is no lack of secret agents, making them work together is apparently impossible.”
   “You with your manifestos and letters! What have you achieved? Nothing!”
   “You really don’t want to understand it! Believing is about the call of God, and not that of Marx. The government wants to reconcile obedience to God and love of socialism. However the more you force the faithful, the less they have sympathy for the hideous tyranny that you impose on their thoughts.” I continued in a higher gear. “In addition, your words have no value whatsoever. The only words that can mean anything, are those of the Secretary General of the Communist Party and the Prime Minister.”
   “Ah, don’t think that they care about your writings!" laughed Kien. "Our country has other fish to fry than worrying about otherworldly ideas of erring priests.”
   Undaunted, I went on. “Why do I have to return to Nam Ha? Why was I exiled to Nguyet Bieu after I had written my Ten Points Programme Do you know what one of your bosses said? "In order to prevent the contamination of other priests.’. You are afraid. Yes afraid, because the authenticity of our faith threatens your corrupt regime.”
   Kien hid his face behind his newspaper.

I remember Nguyet Bieu, after Doc So the second remote parish that I was assigned to as punishment. Over there I was the successor of my colleague and dissident Huu Giai.
   “Your parish has less than a hundred believers," said Giai. "Because your pastoral mission is limited, you still have plenty of time. Why don’t you teach? You speak different languages ​​and have musical talent. And who in this country has such a knowledge of astronomy? In this region no training or specific education is offered. The only thing you find here are Communists stationed at the front and rear of the house and near your bedroom”
   “You and your black humor" I laughed.
   I don’t think his idea crazy, but I've never taught. “Maybe I’m too hot-tempered? When I teach, it’ll do it my way.”
   “Try it”, said Giai encouragingly.

Many people showed up for my first French lesson. With the help of some parishioners, the offer was quickly extended to English and music. People even came from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, to attend the course on astronomy.
   I demanded the full attention of the participants. Whoever was inattentive was expelled from the course after the first warning. The courses were free. I just asked for a small contribution for electricity. And those who didn’t have money paid nothing.
   At Nguyet Bieu, my interest in technology prompted me to use a computer. But as they had quickly understood the potential danger, the authorities hampered the possible sale of computer equipment. Friends who had fled Vietnam and who lived in the United States sent me parts by mail. And tourists gave me packages. “Fragile” was written on the package above the symbol of a glass. Patiently I assembled my first computer and then a second, followed by a third. I also taught beginners how to use computers. I gave priority to children of the poorest families.
   Van Loi later helped me to establish a connection to the Internet. We kept this secret, because I sensed the enormous potential of this media. For the first time we were able to spread our ideas worldwide without being confronted with the Communist censorship. What a revelation! I felt that the Internet would become the most powerful tool in my peaceful struggle for freedom.

Five to six. I heard the chapel bell. Some retired colleagues shuffled to the chapel.
   Kien got op. Since I received amnesty on Tet 2005, he is my inseparable shadow. However, he is the first head guard that lasted longer than three months. He has become calmer, probably due to his Zen meditation exercises, but he doesn’t speak about that for fear of losing his job. Last year, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. And there are those who wonder what good can come from a dissident priest! Despite our differences of views a bond has grown between us. It seems we are destined for each other. I guess he will be there when I'm on my deathbed.
   “Ehm, your wheelchair?” he asked. I made a dismissive gesture. "In the Gospel of St John we read: ‘When you are young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go’ I don’t feel old. My spirit is alive and well.”

Chapter 3

3. Six o’clock

When I opened the sliding side door of the ambulance, the driver didn’t move an inch. I climbed painfully aboard and clung to Kien when I tried to lie down. He put my legs straight.
   Heaving a sigh, a nurse wriggled in with a wicker basket and my walker.
   “Good morning”, she said gruffly. “Nurse Ngoc. I must accompany you. That’s all I know.”
   “Ah! You bring the provisions, "said” Kien.
   Why a nurse? What could she possibly do when I would again suffer a stroke?
   Because of our travel bags the place was very cramped. Especially the metal folding seats weren’t comfortable. I remembered last year’s journey. Then we had to face the ordeal of bad road sections at the beginning of the journey, now they would come at the end of the journey. Anyway, this trip was be a terrible ordeal for my poor body.
   As during the outward journey, we had little trouble with the driver. All he could do was mumble a few sounds that were like 'yes' or 'no'.
    Installed at his side, Phuc enjoyed his position of strength. He caressed the barrel of his gun. Did he think that I want to escape? Without my walker I couldn’t even take two steps.
   When Kien gave the signal to leave, Phuc indicated that I must be tied up. “These are the orders.” He showed the letter from a senior government official in Hanoi.
   I protested. “I will not be put on a leash”. I turned to Kien. “You want to turn everyone into slaves. If Phuc could make decisions here, he would even put me a muzzle on me. Because that's the goal: to silence me.”
   The lieutenant- colonel, who is under attack on both flanks, raised his voice. “Shut up! I am the boss here, Phuc. The journey is already difficult enough. Nguyen will not be tied up.”
   Then he turned to me. “As for you, you're exaggerating again. I've never silenced you.”
   “The 1.2 million employees of the secret service in every city, every village, every street and every house are spying on everyone. Anyone whose head sticks out of the field is arrested.” I gasped for breath. “Besides, you sin against the Confucian tradition.”
   Kien pricked up his ears, for he had never heard this argument. “Ehm, Confucius? What does Confucius have to do with all this?”
   “The Communist propaganda cultivates his example as the combination of talent and virtue and emphasizes the values ​​of incorruptibility, moral leadership and effective management. Yet our leaders are common bandits and this country of ours is rotten to the bone.”
   Ngoc was stunned. “I know nothing of history and I don’t follow politics, but I 'm happy. Last month, I could buy a moped for my son. Five years ago that was unthinkable.”
   Kien and Phuc nodded in agreement and the driver agreed with a buzzing sound.
   “I 'm talking about freedom. Only on paper our country guarantees human rights, because far above everything and everyone sits the government and the Communist Party at the top of the hierarchy. They are untouchable and can get away with anything. What a farce!”
   Suddenly it was quiet inside the car. The ambulance had to execute a difficult manoeuvre when it left the palace of the Archbishop. We needed to drive onto the boulevard in the opposite direction. The danger didn’t come from cyclists and rickshaws but from hundreds of scooters. When we finally managed to cross the road, a cacophony of horns and bells erupted.
   I looked at the steeple of the chapel. My thoughts turned to my colleagues who were celebrating mass. To unite myself with them, I took my breviary. The now battered copy that I got during my ordination remains my anchor.
    I looked at the annotation made last night in the chapel. The first reading of the Mass of the coming weekend comes from chapter 40 of the book of Isaiah.
Comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed.
It’s been years since I had last read that text. The prophet Joshua not only announces the end of exile, but also predicted that Yahweh Himself will guide the return of the exiles.

See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power. And he rules with a mighty arm.
He tends his flock like a shepherd.
These words have been written 2.700 years ago and are still relevant! I kissed the text and pressed it against my heart.

Nurse Ngoc pointed to the Central Hospital. “My father died there in 1987”, she sighed.
   “What happened to him?”
   “A long illness.” The tone of her voice betrayed that his death continued to affect her. “First, he lived in the jungle during the war. And then he was deployed in the occupation of Cambodia. His health was broken.”
   “You have a Tonkin accent?”
   “I was born in Vinh.”
   “Then you shouldn’t worry. As North Vietnamese and with a war hero in the family your children are given priority in the allocation of a scholarship and a place at the best colleges and universities. And later they can go to work for the government or a State-owned company. However, I advise you to become a member of the Communist Party, if you haven’t got your party card already.”
   Ngoc shook her head.
   “Such a card makes your life a lot easier. My guards can give you all the information about it.”
   Kien and Phuc looked at each other in despair, but remained silent.
   “Another good advice. Always obey your bosses. For anyone who steps outside the line there is the rule of Three Generations. You not only put your own future at stake, but also that of your mother, your husband and your children. They are sent away from school, their job will be taken from them, or access to health care is denied.”
   Frightened, the nurse didn’t know how to react.
   “However, there is one consolation: Communism will self-destruct!”
   At the traffic lights my words were drowned out by the decibels of the young guys on their scooters, so I repeated in a loud voice: "There will be no external attack. Communism will destroy itself.”
   “What drivel is that?” Ngoc exclaimed.
   “Communism bears all the elements of self-destruction in itself. Atheism, materialism, hatred, violence, corruption and deception reinforce an already negative spiral. Only harsh repression manages to temporarily keep up appearances. But this cocktail is ultimately fatal. On the Vietnamese flag the large yellow star surrounded by a red field will soon be replaced by a shooting star.”
   Kien didn’t react immediately, but Phuc threw a tantrum: “Damn it! Don’t mock the symbol of our country.”
   I grinned. 
   We rode across the Perfume River parallel to the citadel. I cast a last look at the impressive complex where I spent much of my free time on Sunday afternoons. And it must be said: it has been beautifully restored in recent years. I don’t suspect the Communists of any interest in history or culture, but each year millions of tourists visit the Imperial City and that yields a lot of money.
   We turned right onto Main Road number 1. At the Kim Long exit are the homes of former mandarins. They are now inhabited by party officials. And on the horizon we see the seven-storey Thien Mu Pagoda, once a hotbed of resistance against the French colonial power and the regime of President Nguyen Ngo Diem.
   “There”, Ngoc pointed out. “My husband works in that factory.”
   To my surprise, I noticed a lot of construction activity.
   “Ehm, so quiet?”, said Kien who noticed my surprise. “Shall I refresh your memory? Since 1986, Vietnam has experienced an economic growth of 7% each year. Or is that not allowed?”
   “You know very well that the planned economy was replaced by capitalism because the occupation of Cambodia had brought our country to the edge of the abyss.”
   Ngoc who was certainly thinking of her father listened intently.
   “The doi moi, that infamous political reform proves that this regime has no legitimacy at all. Marx and Lenin would turn in their graves if they were to see that their ideals were transformed into crass financial gain.”
   “Vietnam has only introduced free market economy, not capitalism,” Kien defended himself.
   I raised my voice: “What’s the difference?”
   Kien found it hard to reply, but finally he said:“ Poverty has decreased dramatically. Agree?”
   For the first time I couldn’t contradict him. It goes without saying that I applaud the reduction in poverty. Yet his triumphalism seemed totally inappropriate to me.
   “There would hardly be any poor people in Vietnam if our country had become an Asian tiger like Singapore or South Korea”, I told him a little later. I shook my head. “But that will never happen.”
   “Ehm, because the Reverend knows everything better?”
   “Because the authorities don’t conduct a policy against poverty. This decrease is only a side effect of the general increase in prosperity. Our political leaders have only one thing in mind: filling their own pockets. Name me one Communist government that is committed to fighting poverty.”
   No reply.
   “Name just one!”

Throughout my life, I have always given priority to the less fortunate. I was still in the seminary when during the holidays of 1968 I did an internship in Saigon with six worker-priests. Inspired by Charles de Foucauld they lived in a mud house in a slum. I sought no career, but wanted to put my life completely in tune with the gospel and be a humble servant close to the poor. I made a living out of the itinerant sale of goods. Anything I earned I shared with the poor. I drew my inner strength from reading the Bible and praying.
   When one day during a police check I didn’t have my papers on me, I was sent to the recruitment center of the South Vietnamese army. What a nightmare! I had to learn to shoot a gun. After an intervention by my eldest brother, who worked at the State Security, I was released.

On the motorway heavily loaded trucks doubled us at high speed.
   “It is important for your future and that of your children to work towards more freedom," I tried to convince Ngoc.
   She shrugged.
   “I know a story you can tell at home”, I challenged her, because I felt that she wasn’t indifferent to what I said.
   “What would that be?”
   “In 2001, the new party leader Nong Duc Manh, who is the illegitimate son of Ho Chi Minh, cracked down on dissidents. And do you know who was the first to be put behind bars?”
   “You guessed it!”
   Unexpectedly, Kien intervened. “Ah! The Reverend forgot to say is that there was a good reason for this. He had sent two slanderous testimonies to the U.S. Congress in which he ridiculed our religious policy.”
   I remember with nostalgia how with the help of Van Loi I succeeded in sending my texts via email to the United States. To the frustration of the Secret Service who continually guarded me, we used the Internet, our ' secret weapon ' for the first time.
   “Did you at least read these texts?”, I challenged Kien.
   “Your baseless slander completely distorted the facts. It was a slap in the face of all Vietnamese.”
   “So you haven’t read my text. You only know the caricature that has appeared in the press. These texts were well and truly available on the Internet, but because of government censorship not many people in Vietnam could read them.”
   Kien took a thick folder with documents out of his bag. A moment later he showed us an article entitled A snake in our midst. “Listen to what the editor of the most influential newspaper in our country writes: ‘His testimony will only benefit the small group of overseas Vietnamese who want to undermine the country for their personal interest.’ What do you think of that, nurse?”
   “That the Communists have a well-oiled propaganda machine”, I replied in her place.
   Ngoc didn’t know yet what hit her.
   “You want me to quote a colleague of the Reverend?” Kien continued. “A priest should teach religion and help people put into practice the biblical texts, but he shouldn’t engage in economics and politics. Nguyen is a saboteur of the Christian religion. He should be punished by the Archbishop and the government.”
   “Where do you get all this nonsense?”
   ” And here's another colleague: ‘Everyone knows the evil acts of Nguyen and want him to be punished severely. Everyone is surprised that he can still behave so provocatively, that he ignores the law and spreads messages that encourage Catholics to revolt. He has never shown any sign of remorse or of self-correction. Shouldn’t the authorities urgently prevent the spread of his poisonous ideas?’” Kien was on a roll. “Ehm, do you know that that on top of that the Reverend advised the U.S. Congress not to approve the trade agreement with this country? And this guy calls himself a Vietnamese!”
   He put down his file and waved both arms. “Why do the Americans interfere in our country? The Vietnamese government would do well to expose once and for all the atrocities committed by the Americans in the prison camp of Guantanamo. Ah, that would make some noise!”
  I tried in vain to intervene.
   “And that's not all. He has also written a series of summons to the Government. I saw one of these texts. Do you know what he did? The Reverend had changed the slogan Independence - Freedom - Happiness on the official letterheadin Lack of independence - Loss of freedom - No Happiness. You are a disgrace to our country!”
   Emitting a deep sigh that resembled a laugh, the driver approved his words.
   “Where does this anger come from?" I said.
   I turned to Ngoc. "It is the truth that hurts."

Nineteen summonses. Despite my arrest, parishioners were able to bring them one after the other surreptitiously to Van Loi, who put them on the Internet. Because the government did not understand how that was possible, I got two extra guards. But my smuggling route was not detected.
   The first victim of the wrath of the authorities was Lars Rise, a member of the Norwegian Parliament. He was stopped during a visit to my parish, was interrogated until three in the morning and was deported the next day.
   A month later, I was arrested by six hundred agents. The police wanted to actually be greater in number than the parishioners who were simple farmers, who recited every morning from half past four their rosary and then attended the Holy Mass. They whispered in my ear that more and more soldiers had surrounded the church, but I started celebrating Mass. Accompanied by the organist, I lustily sang the opening song:
We carry Your Word,
It touches us, it drives us.
I saw how hordes of soldiers invading the church via the two aisles. They headed straight to the altar. While the organist continued his singing the parishioners screamed: “Save our priest!”
   Some rushed forward to protect me but they were beaten with truncheons and electric batons. This was the first time I saw this type of weapon. An old woman who had already stood watch all night was thrown on the floor and kicked. And my faithful servant, a seventy year old man who stood guard at the church for one hundred days was manhandled with the electric batons. His body was covered with blood stains. He groaned in pain.
   A special unit grabbed me by the collar and dragged me out of the church.
   The organ music turned into a cacophony, because the organist was also beaten up.
   All the parishioners were forcibly placed against the outside walls of the church. Whoever moved was beaten up.

Ngoc looked very pale now. “So much violence. Why?”
   I stared at Kien. His anger seemed to have subsided.
   The next day, two hundred parishioners visited the headquarters of the Communist Party. When asked by the police where they were going, the children who marched at the head said: "We are searching for our priest. Bring him back!"
   The hastily summoned police reinforcements again scattered the parishioners beating them with electric batons. “Down with the regime of terror” and "Religious Freedom or Death” shouted the protesters.
   A young woman stepped forward and asked, "Where did you hide him? If you have murdered him and secretly buried him then bring us at least his body.”
   When the police threatened to shoot her, she shouted, "I'm ready to die! Shoot me!”
   Ngoc had tears in her eyes, but Phuc intervened with his hearty laugh. “Dont’t believe too damn much of what that pastor says. He is a champion of exaggeration.”
   “There is evidence, "I replied indignantly. The police have filmed everything. Everyone had to take off his straw hat all the time. These images were later used as evidence against the protesters.”

It was not the first time that I was violently arrested. In 1983, when officers had surrounded the parish and the church of Doc So, I mobilized my parishioners through the loudspeaker on the church tower. Dozens of parishioners spent the night in the rectory. In the candlelight prayer forged a close bond. Those who came to join us the next day brought us food and drinks. We shared everything we had. Given the sheer number of participants, the police did not dare to intervene immediately.
   In a letter to the Communist Party I promised to stop my activities provided that I would get an answer to my first manifesto, Seven just and reasonable points, that I had sent five years earlier.
   Since there was no reply from the government, I distributed my second manifesto: My final and ultimate position with the help of Van Loi. The announcement that I would continue my battle until I got satisfaction on all issues had resulted in a tripling of the number of officers stationed around the rectory and church. Although supply of food and drink was disrupted, dozens of believers, and some of them Buddhists, stood by my side.
   A few weeks later, the authorities decided to intervene anyway. After the first Mass, three hundred armed soldiers quickly and violently forced their way in between the parishioners. An officer attacked me in the back with a baton and struck me until I lost consciousness.
   That same day, Amnesty International adopted me as a prisoner of conscience, a status that I have now had for almost thirty years. 

We drove past a sign with the town name " Quang Tri’.
   It is here that I attended the lower secondary school from 1960 to 1963.
   A little further on, an arrow indicated the route of La Vang.
   “Stop!”, I shouted. “I have to go to the toilet urgently.”
   Surprised, Kien gave the order to leave the Main Road.
   The ambulance stopped on the side of the road.
   “No, a toilet”, I repeated. “Four kilometres further down is the cafeteria of the place of pilgrimage.”
   Kien look revealed that he found out that I 'm up to something, but he agreed.
   Beaming with happiness, I clambered out of the car. Next to the statue of Our Lady I saw the new basilica which was consecrated in January 2011. Finally it had happened! Pope John-Paul II dreamed of completing the reconstruction of the basilica for the bicentenary of the apparitions in 1998. But better late than never.
   “The cafeteria is closed”, said the cleaning woman. When I showed her the little cross on my shirt , she let me in.
   “Why did you want to absolutely stop here?" Kien was leaning against the wall while I was washing my hands.
   “I used to live two kilometres further down.”

   My thoughts went back to 1955.
   The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu announced the end of colonial rule, and the Geneva Conference which followed divided the country. North Vietnam got a communist government led by Ho Chi Minh and South Vietnam remained within the Western sphere of influence. Anyone who wanted could nevertheless move. A million people left the north, mostly Catholics, among whom all the people of my hometown Na Ngoat.
   Although I was only eight years old at the time, I remember that day like it was yesterday.

Waving his hands around the priest gave instructions. “No furniture. Take only clothes and food.”
   My sister helped me to stuff have all my things in my cardboard suitcase: we both sat on top of the suitcase to ram it shut.
   “When we will go back home?”, I asked the priest.
   “It won’t be long. We’ll have elections in two years’time. Then country will be reunited again.” His face lit up with a big smile.
   “I don’t believe a word of it," grumbled my father. “The Communists don’t accept any compromise. There will be no elections.”
   Seven trucks of the French army rumbled through the village.
   “We were promised twelve," protested the priest.
   “We do what we can.” The French soldier said. “We are trying to help everyone …”
   “All men over the age of twelve will walk," announced the pastor. “We’ll meet in Quang Tri.”
   When our truck jerkily moved forward on the dirt road, grandmother started to weep softly. Mama comforted her. I cast a last glance at my birthplace. Suddenly it dawned on me that the toy car that I got from my uncle was still under my bed. I started to cry.
   “The door isn’t locked, Mom," I shouted. "What if thieves steal my car?”
   She smiled. “No house is locked and who would take your car now? Next year we are back here.”
   “But papa says …”
   Mom held me against her. I hardly dared move for fear of breaking the spell of his embrace.
   I woke up in a refugee camp near Quang Tri. We slept in tents. Volunteers were struggling to make our stay as pleasant as possible. Mom and Dad lived in joyful expectation. The South Vietnamese President Diem had indeed promised to give a plot of fertile land to each refugee.

A year later, six new villages sprang up in the hilly forest surrounding the shrine of La Vang. We moved to the centre of La Vang. Around the new church volunteers of an American aid organization built prefabricated houses. They wore blue t-shirts with the letters CRS.
   As the crow flies, our former village was barely forty kilometers further north. However, life was not like before. As the land was less fertile, we also had less to eat.
   “When are we going back, papa?”
   “Finish your plate," ordered my oldest sister.

“Does that village still exist?”, Kien asked.
   “The Communist Easter Offensive of 1972 razed the whole area.”
   I got a lump in my throat. “My two adoptive brothers died in combat over there. They fought in the South Vietnamese army. Finding work was difficult and the barracks were nearby.”
   “Your place is not in the seminary in Hue now. Come home immediately. The whole village must move today.” I heard panic in the voice of my father.
   Of course I had heard the morning news. The North Vietnamese army had launched an offensive in the province of Quang Tri. But did everything happen so quickly? Or did the South Vietnamese radio give a distorted picture of the situation?
   I took the bus, but I was the only passenger. The refugee flow in the opposite direction made the journey difficult. It was not until four hours later that I arrived at La Vang.
   The truck engines of the South Vietnamese army were running while three hundred villagers were boarding the trucks with all their possessions. The memories of our first flight, seventeen years earlier resurfaced.
   There was indeed a sense of urgency. The points of impact of bombs were coming perilously close. The target was the South Vietnamese military camp which was only five kilometres away as the crow flies. I felt the earth vibrating.
   “We should run to Hue as quickly as possible”, I advised the priest.
   We drove away from the war zone and approached the old imperial capital at nightfall.
   The director of the parish school near the airport of Hue where I taught catechism once a week allowed us to spend the night there. That same evening the priest gave me a ride to the airport. We were lucky. The next morning we could board a C130 of the South Vietnamese army. This aircraft had to fetch equipment in the military camp of Bien Hoa, north of Saigon.
   The women and children sat in hammocks along the fuselage of the aircraft. The men stood in the middle with their luggage. I saw happy faces, but underneath was hidden fear. What would the future hold? Could the South Vietnamese army hold out, now that the Americans were about to leave Vietnam?
   Upon arrival in Bien Hoa, we learned that we had narrowly escaped hell. “The region of La Vang was completely destroyed," announced the radio reporter. 
   At first, we temporarily stayed in a tent camp on a soccer field, but later we moved to a small village, but its serenity was unfortunately marred by night raids by the Vietcong.
   In our search for a definitive solution we came across a site that was owned by the Ministry of Agriculture near Bien Hoa.
   “Do you know anyone at the Department of  Agriculture?” I asked my oldest brother who worked for the State Security.
   “I’ll call you back.”
    That same day we had a meeting with a senior official. The man hailed from Quang Tri and he was willing to listen to our request.
   “Five minutes. I put the question to the minister.”
   We kneeled in silence and began to pray. Every minute seemed like an eternity. Our pastor with his sore knee was gritting his teeth.
   When he came back into the office, the official was scared out of his wits when he saw us sitting in prayer. But he had good news. We would get the approval in due form with the stamp and signature of the Minister.
   “Our prayer was heard!" the priest triumphed.
   The area on the edge of the jungle was overgrown with trees and bamboo bushes. I drew a map with a checkerboard pattern around the church, the school and the market. Each family was allocated an equal plot of land. We called our new home Quang Bien: a contraction of the place Quang Tri, the province from which we came and the city of Bien Hoa. With great enthusiasm and solidarity of the Catholic parishes in the neighborhood we created a new village.

   “We have to go now”, Kien said.
   I looked up. “Thanks.” I appreciated that he had given me some time. Compared to the previous head guards he at least showed some respect.