In search of Refugee’s grave – Terampa Island, Indonesia 1998

Carina Hoang » In search of Refugee’s grave – Terampa Island, Indonesia 1998

Many ‘Boat People’ suffered adversities that have left them emotionally wounded, with scars that are difficult to heal. My aunt, whose son died from malaria while they were in an Indonesian refugee camp, is one such person. She suffered pain and guilt for leaving her dead son behind. This had inhibited her ability to enjoy life as she should.

My aunt had four sons, and Dung was the second oldest. When we were growing up in Vietnam, I often stayed at her house during school breaks; to my aunt, I was the daughter she never had. Dung was my favorite cousin, he was fun, gentle and clever, and he always looked out for me.

Dung was eighteen when he and his family escaped from Vietnam in 1979. They made it to Indonesia and were living in the jungle near the outskirts of an island called Terampa. During that time many Boat People were living in the jungle without food, water, shelter, and medicines; as a result, many got sick and died of diseases. After a month, Dung died of malaria. His family buried him in a hurry, because the following morning, all refugees were transferred to an official refugee camp. My aunt often wondered whether Dung would have lived if he had made it to the refugee camp.

In summer 1984, I visited my aunt in California. This was the first time we had seen each other since we left Vietnam. When we sat down to have lunch, my aunt placed a bowl of rice and a pair of chopsticks on the table next to me, and said “You were his favorite cousin, so you shall sit next to him”, “Who’s he?” I asked.

My aunt answered “Dung”. I was speechless and burst into tears.

My aunt still sets a place at the table for Dung, even though it is 31 years since he passed away.

My aunt told me that she wondered if Dung’s grave was still there, and that she wished to bring his remains home before she died. I told my aunt was: “someday, I will go to Indonesia and find Dung’s remains for you”, my aunt smiled and said, “I wish….”

Feeling her pain compelled me to find my cousin’s remains. Summer 1998, my brother, Wally, asked me to travel with him to some Asian country during his summer break.
Spontaneously, I said, “Sure, how about Indonesia to find Dung’s remains?”
“You must be joking! We don’t even know where he was buried” Wally replied.
“So? We can ask my aunt for details, we can even invite one of Dung’s brothers to come with us,” I said.
“Yah! Why not, I am game, if you are….” Wally countered.

That was how the journey began.

In the thick Indonesian jungle, we found Dung’s grave, and with the permission of the local Indonesian government, we cremated his remains and brought back the ashes. Unfortunately, since 2009, I learn that the local Indonesian authorities do not allow for excavations and removal of remains anymore, as this is an uncommon cultural practice.

That made us the first Vietnamese boat people ever to have come back to visit the refugee camps in Indonesia in more than 20 years. Perhaps we were the first Vietnamese boat people able to find and keep the remains of our loved ones during the second Vietnamese Exodus, as of 1998.