The reluctant miracle worker

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Originally displeased with his new post, the director of a rehabilitation center in Vietnam has now helped some thousand drug addicts turn their lives around

 
Nguyen Manh Cuong (L), a former drug addict who was cured at the rehabilitation center where Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Quang Toan serves as director, instructs a man in the art of decorating a ceramic vase. The center has been transformed into one of the biggest ecological and farming zones in Hai Phong City. 

Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Quang Toan, who once hunted criminals for the Hai Phong Police, felt discontented when he was assigned to work at a local drug rehab center.

Toan recalled the "fateful day" eight years back to a Lao Dong reporter. He had been dispatched to help identify the leaders of the rebellion which saw some 1,000 drug addicts run amuck, destroying property and attacking officials in a massive jailbreak from the rehabilitation center located at a desolate, marshy area of Hai Phong City.

Local authorities later concluded that the rebellion in April of 2005, which horrified residents of Gia Minh Commune, was caused by insufficient facilities, cramped and dark accommodations and officials' mistreatment of those undergoing the detoxification process.

After the drug offenders were recaptured, Toan became the deputy director of the center for six months, according to a Lao Dong report on January 28.

"I thought my mission was accomplished then, but that fateful day tied my life to this center.

"As a member of the criminal hunting team, I didn't like sitting still, but I had to fulfill the duty," said Toan.

He said he asked for a leave after six months but Hai Phong's police chief insisted that he stay on for a while since several officials at the center quit in the wake of the rebellion.

"And then the center's director was transferred to another office, so I became an unwilling director." 

"˜Swashbuckling' guy

Nguyen Manh Cuong, who volunteered to work at the center after finishing his treatment for drug addiction, said he had never met a guy "as swashbuckling as Toan" in his nearly 60 years of age. Cuong had been addicted to drugs for 35 years and had spent over 30 years counting bars for various offenses. 

When Toan took over the center, the drug addicts still fought one another and managed to escape very often, Cuong recalled.

One day, Toan gathered and challenged all of them to fight him, promising to quit if anyone defeated him. But nobody said a word, Cuong said.

Toan then talked with them about life, family and the personality type typical of drug addicts, which moved many to tears.

"Do you want to change your lives? Are you determined to do that? If so, I'll help you," he told the addicts, who were ready to answer: "Yes."

He then asked them to promise that they would not flee or fight anymore, and to use chains to restrain themselves when struck by temptation. He asked the officials to take good care of the drug addicts and told them that he would impose "heavy punishments" for any such infractions.

According to Cuong, Toan one day later had the fences surrounding the center removed. A couple months later, he revoked all the officials' clubs and broadcast songs or stories about love and ethics throughout the center four times a day.

"Listening [to the songs and stories] all the time, even rock could be eroded and we all encouraged one another to stop our drug habits at all cost so we could reunite with our families," he said.  

Instilling hope for the future

Pham Hai Anh, the center's deputy director, told a Lao Dong reporter during a tour of the center, which is now full of thousands of orchid basins and filled with birdsong, that the drug addicts have the chance to play sports and work after undergoing their treatment in order to reintegrate themselves with the community.  

 
The drug addicts in the center practice yoga, a type of meditation originating in India, to improve their mental, spiritual and physical health.

According to Anh, Toan encouraged the drug addicts to help transform the marshland into a fishpond, a farm to grow vegetables and flowers, breed animals and build factories to make shoes or ceramics, which now earn some billions of dong in revenues annually. 

Anh added that every drug addict now has their own job and is paid for their labor. Dozens of them have sought and received approval to stay and work at the center, which is now one of the biggest ecological and farming zones in the port city. 

"Many families considered them (the drug addicts) as garbage and the disastrous products of society and wanted them kept out of sight. So what should we do to help them not to bring disaster to the community when they come back? That question kept me up, tossing and turning," Toan said.

But the experience of this 20-year veteran of the police force has helped him on his mission to convert those who were once infamous hoodlums or misguided rich kids.

Lao Dong newspaper cited statistics from the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs as saying that Vietnam has helped 50,000 people rid themselves of drug addiction, training and providing jobs for 9,000 of them last year alone. 

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