There but for fortune …

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With ‘Boat People’ in the news again … here is an account of an ‘event’ from the mid 80’s…

After any war the majority of the victims are always civilians, the homeless, the refugees, the orphans, and the widows … and for many … the struggle goes on long after the last shot has been fired.

There but for fortune …

It was the mid-eighties and we were employed on an offshore decommissioning job that was located in the South China Sea, midway between Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. Part of our mobilisation induction included how to deal with Vietnamese Boat People and the official company instruction was that the refugees were not allowed to tie up alongside or set foot on any of the offshore structures, they cited multiple safety reasons. If a boat came alongside we were supposed to stop them getting too close by prodding them away with long bamboo poles or any means available to prevent them getting onboard, unless there was clear evidence of life threatening circumstances.
This all seemed rather harsh, but there were the political and liability aspects to consider, and besides, we were just contractors and supposed to do exactly as we were told, chances were we would never be faced with the situation anyway.

There were however rumours that some of the local offshore crews got a little carried away and pelted the refugees with welding rods, empty paint cans full of urine and rotten food, later events lead us to think that the stories were almost certainly true.

One of the structures to be decommissioned was in the easternmost production area of the offshore field, a very small platform and we had about two weeks work there. We were sleeping onboard under plastic sheeting rigged around the handrails, the main power-plant was disconnected ready for removal and it was way too hot and humid to sleep in the miniscule accommodation unit. There was an emergency generator still in place but it wasn’t connected to the now redundant air conditioning. Coolboxes full of food and fresh fruit were sent from a mother platform every day, and we had a more than adequate supply of tinned food and bottled water for emergencies, the whole thing had the element of a ‘lads’ summer camp, minus the hikes, campfire singsongs … and ritual debagging.

About the third day in we were woken by a commotion on the spider deck, the lowest area of the platform just above the sea. A refugee boat had crept up quietly during the night and was tied up to the structure. Our local crane driver, nicknamed Container, was trying frantically to push them away, as instructed, however, every time he wielded his bamboo pole, someone on board the refugee boat merely brushed it out of the way with a larger pole. He was getting more and more agitated and was yelling for support, our workforce were mainly of Chinese origin and refused to get involved, they were mostly traditional Buddhists and they firmly believed such inhumane actions would bring ‘Bad Karma’ on them in this life, or the next, and so they kept firmly out of the way.
Container, so named because of his huge capacity for food, was now waving his pole around, shouting abuse and angrily trying to hit the man who was easily fending him off. It looked like it was time to intervene, we had our orders but I was not going to stand by whilst one of the team assaulted an unarmed refugee. I have no idea at all what the Geneva Convention has to say on this but in my opinion Container was way out of order, the fact that he was a prize asshole merely amplified that opinion. He was one of those ‘Muslims’ who were totally ‘devout’ when it came to tossing it off and avoiding work by extending his pre-prayer ablutions by anything up to half an hour. We were informed his ‘piety’ disappeared the second he set foot ashore and he was well known for his beer intake and ‘in depth’ knowledge of the locations of all of the local ‘houses of ill-repute’.
He wasn’t in the least bit pleased when I told him to pull his head in, he gave me a mouthful of local invective then threw his bamboo into the sea and went off to sulk, I made a mental note to myself that I would have a few private words with him later, preferably out of sight of witnesses.

The man on the boat had watched the exchange with interest, he clasped his hands in front of his face and made a short bowing gesture. I’d seen this many times in Thailand, it was either a greeting, a thank you, or a sign of respect, it all depended on the position of the hands and the depth of the bow, I knew enough not to return the gesture in case I insulted him. He now pulled a plastic wallet from his inside his shirt, he jammed it into a slot cut in the end of his bamboo pole and passed it over. I opened it carefully, it was a bulky letter clearly addressed to one of the senior production engineers on the main platform, an American named Mike Michaels, or Mega Mike as he was often known on account of his sheer size, not fat, just huge. The main address was in English but it also seemed to be repeated in several other languages, only one thing for it, radio Mega Mike and pass on the information.

He was on the line within minutes and told me to go to another channel, once there he passed on instructions speaking very quickly, I gathered later this was to confuse unwanted listeners. No one was to go near the boat except myself or other expats, we could pass them water and food, but other than that, we were to keep right out of the way.
One hour later a fast crew boat pulled up and showing extreme agility for such a big man, Mike jumped directly aboard not bothering with the personnel transfer basket. He took the letter from me, opened it and scanned it quickly, his only comment was “Good” as he folded the document away.
He pulled a walkie-talkie radio from a diver’s type gear bag he had slung over his shoulder. The military style radio was very large and equipped with an extended antenna, not standard offshore issue at all. He switched it on, punched some buttons, waited a few seconds and then spoke rapidly into it. I couldn’t understand what he was saying as he was speaking in some sort of numerical code, one thing for sure, it wasn’t ‘CB lingo’

He finished his transmission, stored his radio in the waterproof pack and called me over.
“Can I ask you and your expat team to help out please?”
“Of course”… there was no need to call them as everyone was down on the spider deck anyway.
“Can you give your local guys something to do to keep them out of the way?”
That would be difficult as no matter what I told them to do, they would only hang over the handrails anyway trying to see what was going on.
“Why don’t we stick them all on the crew boat and send them for a sightseeing trip around the field?”
“Up to you, your men, your job, so its your call, not mine … I’m just a production operator”
He was just being polite and diplomatic because despite what he said, he was clearly ‘In charge’
“Well I don’t think we are going to get much work done today anyway are we?”
I called the local crew together and told them the job was shutting down for the day for ‘Security and Safety’ reasons and that they all had to disembark onto the crew boat currently standing by alongside. They all accepted without question and went off to get their day bags together, that was all except Container, who lagged back still sulking.
Mike hailed the crew boat and the team were transported onboard by personnel transfer basket, that left only Container as he had driven the crane, he decided he was not leaving as there was no one to operate the crane. Mike climbed into the cab and five minutes later a thoroughly disgruntled Container was deposited none too gently on the deck of the crew boat.
“That man is one pain in the ass” observed Mike, I related to him the morning’s events. “Figures, he’s one of the local Muslims who resent the Boat People landing here, they seem to think they are all getting instant United States passports and transport to where the streets are all paved with gold and blonde sex-mad women … hypocritical assholes”
I thought I had better add that not all of the crew had been involved in the initial encounter and that some of them had helped out. Mike nodded in agreement …
“The Chinese guys? That figures as well, they sympathise with the Vietnamese, there but for fortune and all that. OK let’s get those people off there”

Mike called to the group leader to pull the boat alongside, he maneuvered into place until the handrail of the craft was just about level with the lowest boat landing deck. The sea swell was less than half a metre and Mike jumped the gap easily, then squatted down speaking with the man in rapid Vietnamese, he seemed to be confirming something first, and then giving precise instructions. The man disappeared below decks and re-emerged with a large sealed package, he passed this to Mike and it was very carefully stashed in the tote bag he’d brought with him.
The transfer started, we lined up as ‘catchers’ and the younger fitter refugees jumped across first without any qualms whatsoever. Once aboard they instantly squatted along the back of the boat landing in that hunkered down position that Asians have perfected over thousands of years. Next came the younger women and children, the women were all a bit wary and we had to call the men to assist us, particularly when passing over the babies and infants. The young boys, like boys all over the world found it a challenge to see who could make the most spectacular leap until one of the older men stepped in to control them.
Lastly there were a few elderly and infirm onboard, so once again Mike manned the crane and we took turns riding the transfer basket back and forth, all the while keeping a gentle grip on the passengers to prevent them from falling out.
Finally everyone, more than fifty people including babies and children, were onboard the platform with all their belongings. Mike and the group leader once again boarded the deserted boat and ducked into the cabin area, they left a lot quicker than they had entered and exactly why soon became obvious, the boat was sinking. They used the pole that had previously been employed to thwart Container to push the wallowing vessel away from the landing area.
As it sank the ‘Boat People’ just stared at what had been their means of escape, no one cried, no one cheered, they just looked lost, now what?

Mike was moving constantly among them, he crouched down next to the elderly and spoke softly and respectfully to them, he produced candy from behind kid’s ears and soon had the young girls giggling with flirtatious remarks. He spoke reassuringly to the mothers as he surreptitiously checked the condition of the children in their arms, then he raised the men to their feet and addressed them as equals … hmm just a production operator eh?
It was only in later years that I worked out the relevance of names such as ‘Mike Michaels’ ‘Bob Roberts’ and ‘Bill Williams’ etc. who all seemed to have work phone numbers located in Langley, Virginia.

Mike brought the men and youths over to where we waited “Can your guys empty the lifejacket storage boxes on the upper deck and these people will lug them down here. Next can you organise a hose from the freshwater tank and give it to the men to fill the boxes, then see what you can find in the way of soap, shampoo, detergent and stuff like that, oh and some thin rope” It was obvious this was a routine Mike had followed quite a few times before, no ‘ifs’ ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ just an efficient operation supervised with quiet authority.

The next few hours were a hive of activity, on arrival everyone was wearing the standard black Asian ‘pyjamas’ but once showered and scrubbed, the more colourful clothing came out. Things they had obviously kept for just such an occasion, clean shirts, blouses, shorts, jeans and other western influenced outfits, touches of make-up were evident as well as jewelry, small gold earrings, and thin gold chains.
The thin ropes we had managed to find were also rigged up and soon line upon line of scrubbed laundry fluttered in the breeze.
We fired up the emergency generator and after cross wiring a few distribution boards, the ladies took over what was left of the galley and soon pots of noodles and rice were steaming on the stove. Bags of dried vegetables and chillis were produced and before long, the aroma of fiery spices being cooked filled the air. Everything was orderly and organized, it was as if their whole Vietnamese village had just been picked up and transported to an oil production platform.

Throughout the whole process, Mike continued circulating and was either talking to the people, or making calls on his ‘radio’, we helped out where we could.

As the refugees visibly relaxed, a few of the men engaged us in English, we soon realized we were talking to teachers, college professors, professionals and educated people, not peasants as we had previously thought. They told us a few of their stories of horrendous maltreatment under the North Vietnamese regime. Anyone who had worked for an American company or the US Government itself were imprisoned or sent for ‘re-education’. A lot of people just disappeared, never to be heard of again. The majority of the ‘boat people’ had lost contact with the rest of their families and they had no idea if they were still alive or had escaped. They had fled their homeland in a small fishing boat and risked everything to seek freedom from oppression, and hopefully to rebuild their lives.
All they had as they put to sea was a name, ‘Mike’, and a description, ‘a big American who speaks softly in fluent Vietnamese’. They were told that once they arrived in the South China Sea oilfields, they had to ask for him. How the hell that worked out we had no idea, but we all agreed later there were probably quite a number of ‘Mikes’ throughout the area. They were also assured that he would have access to the lists of names of those who had been rescued, which refugee camps they were in, and which countries the lucky ones had moved on to.
Sure enough he did have lists, and once everyone was cleaned up and fed, he conferred with the group leaders, they then announced what sounded like a list of family names.
Some people wept with joy, obviously they had been informed that their loved ones were safe, but those without good news merely nodded in acceptance ‘maybe next time’.

A few more calls and Mike called us and the men together, they would be leaving at midnight,

It was getting dark now and so we did some more rewiring and lit up the main deck area, Mike would be operating the crane which was diesel driven and we would be manning the personnel transfer basket again. The weather decided it would like to be involved and the wind was now getting up, black clouds scudded across the sky and rain was threatening. Mike was adamant though that there would be no delays, this group had to go tonight on the vessel that was already underway, if they got lost in the local system for handling refugees, they could be delayed for months or even years in camps.

We sat and waited as the wind continued to rise. I was just drifting off when someone tapped me on the shoulder, it was an elderly man who had hung back in most of the conversations, he stood holding a cloth roll and was making what I thought looked like a throat cutting gesture. Alarmed, I called out to Mike, a quick exchange with the man clarified everything.
“He’s a barber, he says you are a ‘scruffy hippy’ and he wants to give you a shave and a haircut to tidy you up … for free”
I had to admit that personal grooming had been pretty low on my priorities lately and I was indeed unshaven and with my hair a bit too long and unkempt.
Hot water was boiled up and he went to work. Later that night as the transport vessel hove into view, a group of very fresh, newly shorn and clean shaven expats waited patiently to see their charges disembarked safely.

The earlier basket transfers had only been a matter of a few feet from the crew boat to the boat landing and had only taken a couple of minutes. Now we would be doing the full lift from the production platform upper level, all the way down to the back deck of the transportation vessel, a height of almost a hundred feet, a frightening ride even for the experienced and now the sea state was gradually getting worse.
Thankfully the transport vessel was much larger and relatively stable, they swung around into place under the platform with all their deck lights blazing, and radioed Mike that they were ready to receive the refugees, time to get a move on.

Billy Pugh is the generic name for personnel transportation baskets utilised throughout the world in the offshore construction and exploration industry. A three metre high truncated cone with a large circular base connected by sail ship style rope rigging to a smaller ring at the top end. This is attached to two wires, one for lifting, the other a safety device.
During a disembarking procedure, the ‘Billy Pugh’ is lifted into an upright position on a flat stable surface by a crane. The passengers are readied, and after strapping on a lifejacket and placing their baggage inside the apparatus, the ‘rider’ steps onto the outside of the lower ring facing in over. They then thrust their arms through the rigging, cross them over and take a firm grip on the ropes. The crane then hoists the device to a height clear of obstacles, swings out over the sea and deposits the ‘riders’ carefully onto the rear deck of a crew boat or support vessel. The load is usually four, at a time, or two, always an even number to maintain balance.
No amusement park white knuckle ride can come anywhere near the stark terror or match the adrenaline rush induced by being suspended in the air by a 20mm wire with nothing else but your own iron grip, and desire to survive, keeping you there. In good weather and in daylight, it is a risky maneuver, at night, in bad weather with a rising sea causing the transport vessel to heave and pitch, we would not be able to lose focus for a second.

We could only take two passengers at a time sitting inside the basket, two of us would ride with every transfer standing on the outside of the basket. Four of our crew would be the first ones down, they would supervise the landing of the basket on the ship’s rear deck as gently and safely as possible. Mike would drive the crane and the remainder of the crew would liaise with the best English speaking Vietnamese to ensure the orderly loading on the upper deck.
The rain that had threatened all night now introduced itself.
Earlier Mike had taken the decision to send some of the stronger men and youths down first, these were to assist on the ship’s deck, these would be followed by the sick and elderly, then the women and children, and finally, the last of the men.
The first of the men put on a brave face to demonstrate that there was nothing to be sacred of, they followed instructions implicitly and all made it down without incident. Next we loaded the old and infirm two at a time, we covered them with blankets to protect them from the rising wind and hopefully to prevent them from panicking. We restrained them as gently as possible, but we still had to stoop down on the outer rim of the basket to hold them in place. The weather continued to worsen and after one nasty spill on the deck of the boat, we ended up tying ourselves in place onto the basket with safety harnesses.
The women and children were terrified as time after time we swung out over the sea, holding on grimly with one hand whilst keeping petrified mothers with wriggling, howling infants in place with the other. The night went on forever and by the time the last few males left the structure a full blown gale was in force with teeming rain. Mike even had to jam the crane anemometer to stop it from rotating, because when wind above a certain speed was registered, it automatically shut down the machine.
Whatever God was watching over these people, he did his job well that night, and thankfully no one was lost overboard or injured
We were worn out, soaked to the skin and totally disheveled, but the last refugees were all safely onboard.
Mike, radio in hand, called us all to the handrail “Ok guys this is for you”.

Despite the pouring rain and the now heaving deck, all of the fit and walking refugees were lined up on the back area of the ship. On a word from their leader they all looked up at us, clasped their hands in front of them, touched their fingers to their foreheads and made a half bow. The highest show of thanks and respect that a Vietnamese can show, then, as the vessel pulled away, they all let out a rousing cheer.

I will never forget that moment as long as I live.

“What happens to them now Mike?”
“That group will go to a US run camp and be processed straight to the States, most of the men were working for American interests in some capacity or other, and despite what the media and the assholes of the world say, we do try to look after them”
“What about other boats?”
“We try and get them directed into safe waters, and then on into the refugee receiving system, but it doesn’t always work. A lot of European countries take a fixed quota every month, and Australia and New Zealand have pretty much an open door policy. But its all down to the processing and unfortunately there’s a lot of red tape and corruption involved, these people are the lucky ones”
“When will it end Mike?”
“We just don’t know, I guess as long as people want to escape a repressive regime”
“Who’s we by the way”
“America’s conscience … and by the way as well, this didn’t happen. You can tell who you like about it, but you’ll never see anything about it in any reports or official logs”
“But from me personally, thanks guys, you did good work here tonight, I’m just sorry we can’t recognise that officially”
His radio crackled…
“Ok, get your gear together, the fast crew boat is coming back to take you ashore”
“We aren’t due off for another three weeks Mike”
“Yes you are, you got five days R&R all expenses paid at the Banyan Tree Hotel just up the road apiece care of my ‘Boss’, and that includes booze”
“You joining us Mike?”
“Oh no, I’m just a production operator … I’ve got work to do tomorrow, whooaaa look at the time, better make that today”

Over the following years stories of verbal, physical and sexual abuse were not only confirmed, but amplified. Boat People reported theft of the few possessions they had along with threats and demands for ‘expenses’ to assist getting in touch with the ‘Mike’s.

Worst of all, there were accounts of deliberate sinking of boats whilst people were still onboard, nothing short of cold-blooded murder.

All of the accusations were strenuously denied of course and no one was ever prosecuted or brought to justice.

There but for fortune go you or I …

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