ONE morning when Nguyen Tuan Cuong was seven he went to play at the fish market in Haiphong. When he got back his parents had gone. That was 16 years ago. And he has since spent most of his life in Chinese prisons and detention centres. Nguyen ended up in China after a refugee boat bound for Hong Kong was blown off course. Life inside was 'brutal'. There were severe beatings and torture. The diet was appalling and there was no school. Four years ago, he escaped and arrived in the territory where he applied for refugee status. But the Government refused to screen him and is now threatening to send him back to the mainland. Nguyen tells his moving story in a document which he presented to the High Court yesterday. In 1978, he says, the Vietnamese Government began persecuting ethnic Chinese, hounding them out of the cities. After his parents vanished he was taken in by a neighbour, Mr Bao. '[He] told me my parents had been forced to leave the country suddenly,' said Nguyen. 'They tried to wait for me, but they were forced to go.' When Mr Bao and his family left Vietnam in a boat for Hong Kong in 1991 they took Nguyen with them. But violent storms forced them to land near a military base and they were immediately arrested and sent to Ninh Minh detention centre. 'I was nine years old at the time,' said Nguyen. 'Life in Ninh Minh was severe. Those who failed to follow the strict regulations were severely beaten and otherwise tortured. People sometimes disappeared for unknown reasons.' But in 1983 the Bao family were freed to join their son in Canada. Nguyen, then 12, was left behind. A few months later, he escaped with some of the older men and took a bus to Yunnan. But when police stopped them, they could not reply in Chinese and were thrown in jail. Nguyen says: 'I just kept repeating 'Vietnam, Vietnam' while they slapped and kicked me and shouted at me. Finally, I began to cry and the interrogation stopped.' Three years later, they were given travel papers to return to Ninh Minh. But the group went to Guangdong instead with plans to buy a boat. However, they could not even earn enough to feed themselves. The teenager ended up in Fang Cheng detention centre which was also 'very harsh' and run on a regime of fear. With the help of another inmate, Nguyen escaped and arrived in Hong Kong waters on April 10, 1991, where he was arrested and handed a paper. 'From that document I understood that as I had always wanted, I now had a chance to be free, to be recognised a refugee,' he said. 'In July 1991, we were moved to Whitehead Detention Centre where I have since remained. I waited to be screened for refugee status, but that has never happened.'