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Travel Asia: Remembering Camp Sinam
Camp Sinam, located in Galang Island, was used as a shelter camp for Vietnamese refugees in Indonesia from 1979 to 1996. The abandoned camp now serves as an interesting local tourist attraction for anyone to visit.
Camp Sinam is located about 34 kilometers from the city of Batam. To get there, visitors must pass through six bridges from Batam. The first bridge is the Barelang Bridge, which length is approximately about 700 meters, followed by bridges that connects Tonton Island, Nipah Island, Setoko Island, and Galang Island. Admission ticket to enter SInam is priced 10 thousand rupiahs or around $2 per car.
The story of Camp Sinam stemmed from the conflict between North Vietnam and communist South Vietnam, famously known as the Vietcong, in the 1970s that ended with the defeat of the US-backed North troops. Vietnamese who supported the US then flee from the country, fearing retaliation from the communist
They generally uses a small boat which is loaded with tens to hundreds of people. From their means of transportation, these refugees were called the Boat People. After wandering in South China Sea, many of them were stranded at Tanjung Pinang, Natuna, Cape Unggat, Walang River and surrounding areas.
In May 1979, the UN High Commission in charge of refugees (UNHCR) in cooperation with the government of Indonesia decided to accommodate the boat people by building refugee settlement in Galang Island. The camp was used for the refugees’ shelter before they were channeled into countries that may accept them.
Starting in 1980, the refugees were placed in the camp. Initially, there were only 50 people settling there, but the numbers increased until it reaches at least 200 thousands people. Of that amount, as many as 5.600 people repatriated back to Vietnam, 500 people died and the rest went to countries that are willing to accept them as citizen, like the United States, Australia, France and Italy.
The facilities that were provided for these refugees were quite complete. This include places of worship, Red Cross Hospital, Youth Centre and cemetery (Ngha Trang Grave). There is also a house of detention to imprison those who did crime.
The places of worship in Camp Sinam can still be visited even today. Visitors can see the Duc Ta On Me To Catholic Church and Nha Vo Duc Me Nhiem Catholic Church that were used by the refugees to hold mass or conduct meetings. There is a unique feature on Nha Duc Me Vo To Nhiem Catholic Church. A statue of the Virgin Mary on a 'ship' is placed outside of the church. The statue acts as a commemoration to Mother Mary for her blessing on the refugees' safety when they were wandering in the sea.
The majority of Vietnamese refugees at Camp Sinam embraced Buddhism. So, not surprisingly, many pagodas can be found in the area, such as Chuan Ky Vien Pagoda, Cao Dai Pagoda, Kim Chua Quan Am Pagoda and Quan Am Tu Pagoda.
In the Quan Am Tu Pagoda, there is a prayer altar in front of the Goddess Kuan Im statue. It is believed that people who pray at the altar will be given good luck, tranquility and soul mate for those who have not married yet.
Tragic stories were also part of the Vietnamese refugees life. One of it is the story of Tinh Nhan Dai, a Vietnamese refugee woman. She was brutally raped by several other refugees in one forest area. Shortly after the incident, Tinh Nhan ended her own life by hanging herself not far from the barrack where she and her family lived. This incident left a deep sorrow to the refugees.
To commemorate this tragic event, Humanity Statue was built in the location where the rape occurred. The statue was made by Nguyen Van Tuyen, a refugee who also sympathize with this tragedy.
Another tragic story that taken place was when the Vietnamese refugees to be repatriated to Vietnam, after the opportunity to become citizen in western countries is closed. This situation is strongly opposed by the refugees, because of fears of what will happen when they returns to Vietnam. Some Vietnamese refugees who are desperate with this situation eventually committed suicide together. Although this is the case, the repatriation of refugees to Vietnam continues.
For more information, visitors can visit the museum in Camp Sinam which acts as an information center. Photographs of activities and events at Camp Sinam, like the activities of Vietnamese young people at Camp Sinam, activities celebrating religious holidays, camp residents rally for better welfare, and the process of repatriation of refugees using warships, can be seen here. There are also various relics and craft works of Vietnamese refugees that are being displayed.