Catalogue of camp life

AT first sight it could be a rare success story. A Vietnamese family waits by the barbed wire fence to be returned home by the United Nations. A little boy wears a cap with the slogan: 'Just do it.' Everyone smiles broadly. But the photograph does not tell the whole story.

The family came to Hong Kong by boat two years ago, but was torn apart after a stranger sexually assaulted the eight-year-old daughter at the detention centre and the father became crazed with anger.

The mother, screened out, separated from her husband, and terrified that her daughter might be attacked again, had made a unilateral decision to return home.

They are smiling only because they are together again for the first time for months, and because they are friends with the photographer.

'There are so many, so many sad stories there,' said Hoang Manh Hung, a Vietnamese Canadian who worked for two years at Whitehead, Sek Kong and in departure camps as a translator and general administrator.

Some of the hundreds of photographs he took, in his spare time, of people in the detention centres have been put together into an exhibition at the Fringe Club, entitled Waiting for a Miracle.

Some of the images are familiar from many newspapers and magazine features about the camps - barbed wire and children, protests and hunger strikers, hopeless weddings with women who are whisked back into the armoured cars as soon as they have said 'I do'.

But the strength of Hoang's exhibition is that, unlike pictures by newspaper photographers, which have been snapped on those brief occasions they have gained access, he has been free to roam and many of the people have become his friends.

One series pictures victims of the Sek Kong fire on February 3, 1992, in which 24 people died and dozens were injured. A woman hangs out washing, her arm scarred to her fingers. A man has burns over his face.

Another series shows the living conditions in the camps. Three families eat their dinner, one family above the other in a bunk arrangement. It is too cramped for them to sit up straight as they serve out the food.

Other photographs show the 'summer houses' that the detainee families often make for themselves when the heat becomes too stifling in their usual houses. A blanket is strung up in the alley as a sunshade, and the children sleep and play underneath.

Of all the people he met, including the old people, the war-wounded, the separated families, it is the teenagers, particularly the unaccompanied ones, for whom Hoang most grieves.

'It is a dangerous time,' he said. 'They have grown up in this terrible environment. A very few can take advantage of it, learn languages, teach themselves. But most are lost. There is no discipline, no homework, nothing to do. And so many of them are involved in physical relationships.' He said that abortion, especially on teenagers, was a commonplace operation at the Whitehead clinics.

'There was one girl who was 15,' he said. 'She had been pregnant three times in a year. In a way she was still just like a kid - but in another way you knew she had really been through such a lot.' Hoang said that teenage girls forced to return to Vietnam faced a particularly tragic problem. The reputation of teenagers in Hong Kong detention centres is such that, in strict Vietnam, the girls returning on the UN-chartered planes find it hard to find a decent husband.

Hoang was a boat person 15 years ago. His father was a middle-class merchant in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), and had been able to support the family of eight children through the war. But after the fall of Saigon in 1974 everything turned bad. It was hard to find food, and harder to see any future.

'One day my father called a meeting of the whole family,' Hoang said.

His older brother was back from training camp and was due to join the fighting in Cambodia within days. He himself, at 17, was about to have to do his military service.

'My father said he had realised that we either stayed here, with no hope for change, or we risked our lives in exchange for a future,' Hoang said. It was agreed that he and his elder brother should leave first. They found passage on a fishing boat, nine metres long, with 40 other passengers. 'That was luxurious; many other boats carried 100 people,' Hoang said.

They had all heard the stories of the Thai pirates who raped women, killed men and sank the boats. Their fishing boat, which left Vietnam on Christmas Day 1979, avoided the coast and headed into the ocean. Everyone was seasick and scared.

But as the new year began, Hoang officially became a refugee in one of the Malaysian camps. It was three months before his parents heard their elder sons were safe and alive - and could make plans for their other children to leave. Two years later there was a family reunion in Canada, which Hoang is proud to call his new country. 'It seemed like a miracle that we had all survived,' he said.

But for almost all the people he had worked with in the detention centres, that miracle was not going to happen, he said: 'I understand that many have to go back to Vietnam now . . . but the problem is that the authorities do not understand how to motivate people to return.' He said that, at least until he left the camps a couple of months ago, there was not enough information for the residents.

'They do not understand that they might get to America more easily if they returned to Vietnam,' he said. 'And the ones who have been in Hong Kong for many years do not really believe that things have changed. They are still afraid.' Waiting for a Miracle, Fringe Club, 2 Lower Albert Road. Until July 5