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Highway to Hell

January 29, 2013

Brace yourselves for my horrific encounter with human rights violations on day 2 of my Can Tho visit. On the morning of January 14, Father Martino briefed our group that we were to visit a shelter for the mentally ill in the morning and an orphanage in the afternoon and bring both sites some gifts. I didn't think much of what was about to come. 

"Trai Tham Than" directly translated means, "Camp for the Mentally Ill". It should really be called a prison camp and I'll tell you why. I step into this site and what I see is men and women behind concrete walls with steel bars containing them from society. I smell urine, feces, and decaying bodies intensified by the smouldering heat. I feel sick to my stomach. Tears are pooling in my eyes and that damned lump in my throat won't go away. 

This hell is funded by the government of Vietnam. Although I would use the word "fund" loosely. Men and women are kept separately. 10-15 people would be inhumanely crammed in a room smaller than my own. They spend their days in these cells void of air conditioning in the extreme, unforgiving heat of Vietnam. They are fed twice a day - once at 9:30 am, and once at 3:30pm. There is a bucket in the middle of each room for these undeserving prisoners to relieve themselves. Once upon a disturbing time, the same buckets would be used to feed them! Based on the smell of the place, I'm assuming showers for each person is not a daily routine. Don't even ask about oral hygiene. 

Every person I look at is deathly malnourished. Bones protrude from every joint. Scars from self inflicted wounds or from god knows what bugs scatter each limb I see. Their skin is dark as coal from the blistering sun. Their eyes eyes are yellow, probably from untreated hepatitis. Above all else, their unforgettable toothless smiles invite me to want to learn their stories. 

I spoke with a 28 year old man who fell off his scooter 3 years ago and sustained a significant head injury. He had a pleasant demeanour with kind eyes and a gentle smile. I asked him if he had any family to visit him, and he said, "None". I asked him if he had friends to visit him and he said, "None". I thought of my patients when I worked on a neurological rehabilitation unit as I was a student and what seems like an infinite amount of resources, love from family and friends, and above all else, dignity and respect for these people. Then I look at this 28 year old man, aged beyond his years, trapped in a prison, stripped of his clothes and dignity, and without a soul in the world that cares about how he is doing. Tears were about to pour from my eyes when he looked at me, smiled, and asked with a hopeful sparkle in his eye, "Co oi (how one would address a female acquaintance), can you bring me a sandwich?" Everybody has a dream, right? That's what Father Martino told us. I wish I could give him 3000 banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches).

This place to me was hell on earth. Animals are not treated this way in Canada. Rapists and murderers live in luxury compared to these innocent human beings. When I am down and out, I can remember that I am blessed. I am lucky. I have freedom. I left this place heavy hearted. I don't know what to say further.

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