Book series details the pain and heroism of Con Dao prisoners

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A new book series profiles more than 3,200 Vietnamese revolutionaries who died at the Con Dao prison, where generations of freedom fighters and political prisoners were beaten, tortured and killed for over a century.

Released Tuesday, the seven-book series "Con Dao Prison: biographies of deceased patriots 1930-1975" tells the story of the remote island jail, built by French colonists and used by France, the US and the former South Vietnam regime to confine political prisoners.

The series" editor Bui Van Toan, who was a former prisoner at Con Dao, said he first had the idea to compile a list of the jail"s prisoners in 1995 when he realized so little of the island penitentiary"s history had been recorded.

"Nearly 35 years after the war, only about 700 names of people who died in Con Dao have been publicized, which is nothing compared to the truth."

Most estimates put the number of people who died at Con Dao around 20,000 during its 113 years of history.

"We should dedicate a wall with all these names on it," said Toan, who has spent years collecting documents and information about Con Dao and its prisoners with the help of the National Archive Center 2.

Heroes

Several revolutionary heroes and founders of Vietnam were imprisoned and even killed at Con Dao.

Vo Thi Sau, whose name has been immortalized on streets and monuments throughout Vietnam, was killed by the firing squad at Con Dao when she was only 17.

First imprisoned for anti-colonial activities when the young girl was only 15, Sau had actually joined the revolution a year earlier, barely even a teenager. Imprisoned in two other jails before she finally reached Con Dao in 1951, her death sentence - for attacking colonial authorities - was carried out the following year. A grave and memorial to her heroic stand against oppression still stand near the former prison grounds today.

Former Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, who worked closely alongside President Ho Chi Minh to build the foundations of the new republic, was also imprisoned at Con Dao from 1929-1936. He had joined the revolution in 1925, when he was only 19 years old. Unlike Ho Chi Minh, who passed away in 1969, Dong was lucky enough to see the dream of reunification finally realized in 1975.

Con Dao inmate Le Duc Tho became most famous decades later for negotiating the 1973 Paris Accords. Though he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Henry Kissinger, who negotiated for the US, Tho refused the award, stating that there was no peace in his country in 1973.

Ironically, historians such as British-American Christopher Hitchens have argued that former Secretary of State Kissinger was responsible for hundreds-of-thousands, if not millions, of deaths incurred during the invasions and bombings of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

A founder of the Indochina Communist Party, Tho had been imprisoned by the French in 1930- 1936 and again in 1940-1944.

"Just like the US carved 58,000 names of US soldiers who died in Vietnam on a wall, there's no reason why we shouldn"t honor those who died to protect this country and those who died in Con Dao prison," said Nguyen Cong Khe, deputy chairman of the Vietnam Youth Union, which published the new book series in association with Thanh Nien Publishing House and Thanh Nien newspaper.

Tiger cages

In the 1940s, the French built what became known as "tiger cages" at Con Dao. The cages were knee-high barbed contraptions with barely enough room to crawl. Some 2,000 prisoners were held in the deathtraps by the French, the US and the Saigon regime until the prison was closed upon re-unification in 1975.

The cages and other physical torture suffered at Con Dao - including beatings, electrocution and water-boarding - were responsible for the disabilities of hundreds, possibly thousands, who left the prison alive.

Nguyen Phuoc Loc, acting deputy chairman of the youth union, said there should be a website dedicated to honoring the prisoners in Con Dao to educate the country"s young generations.

The new book series comes as part of "Nghia tinh Con Dao" (Remembering Con Dao), a nationwide fundraising program that has raised some VND12.5 billion (US$702,445) after one year to help preserve the island, honor the soldiers and provide support to former prisoners and other current residents of Con Dao.

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