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“Good bye…, Galang Camp”
This is the caption written on one of the pictures found at the Museum of Humanity on Galang Island,located south of Batam, in the Riau Islands province. The sentence is very succinct, embedding the desperate struggle for human survival.
On the picture one can see people smiling, waving goodbye to the island where they had found a safe haven and spent years, free from the unspeakable traumas of war, persecution and the dangerous flight across the ocean.
Farewell .. Galang Island: an expression that is filled both with sadness and hope as they leave Galang, finally to return home and a better future. Other pictures show how tens of small boats were stranded on the beach, having carried entire families in one boat. They came from across the oceanbuffetted by terrifying high waves bringing only the clothes they had on and some sparse food.
They sailed the South China Sea to seek refuge and a safe place for the family. They came from Vietnam fleeing from the second Indochina War of 1975 that was raging there.
The first boats were sighted by the staff working on the offshore oil drills at Kepulauan Tujuh (now renamed the Islands of Anambas and Natuna) . The oil rig workers saw 75 people cramped in oneboat: children lying in foetus position, while some adults were forced to keep standing. They were physical weak having spent days in the open sea. Then more and even more boats came, carrying thousands of refugees seeking safe haven in Indonesia.
These were "the Boat People", a name that has tuck with them. The Boat People kept arriving, spreading to many islands in then called Riau province, which forced the Indonesian Government to find a solution to accommodate this sudden influx of people.
In cooperation with UNHCR, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Indonesia succeeded in reaching an agreement that the refugees could all be accommodated on one island. The first refugee camp was built on Anambas until 1979 when it was further decided to build a larger camp on Galang island since the number of boat people had grown into the thousands.
Galang Island is located in the sub-district of Galang in the municipality of Batam in the Province of the Riau islands. Galang was chosen because of its strategic location that had few inhabitants, so that these could be easily cleared. The island was also quite isolated from other major islands.
Here the UN agency built not only barracks but also other facilities including a hospital, houses of prayers, a cemetery and even a prison for criminals. The Galang Island Camp was officiated in January 1980 by former President Suharto for reasons of humanity.
For decades no Indonesian was allowed on the island except for assigned officials and staff. Here the refugees could live their own life as closely as at home. They spoke Vietnamese and English. Their numbers continued to grow to 250,000. On Galang they found a safe, temporary but secluded haven and could live the life as among their own community.
The influx of boat people ceased in 1996 when peace finally came to Vietnam . Meanwhile a number of refugees had succeeded to find asylum in third countries after having received education and training in English and French. The remainder returned home to Vietnam.
Today the Camp is completely deserted. Only the Museum and other buildings stand witness of the suffering and pain once endured by a section of humankind known as the Boat People.
Traces and the story of the Boat people can still be followed on Galang island until today. Anyone visiting here cannot but be touched by the desperate journey and suffering that must have been endured by the boat people and their children before they found shelter here
For the unfailing support given by the Republic of Indonesia in cooperation with the UN, the camp at Galang was acknowledged as the best among similar camps in other parts of Asia.
If you still have time, you can continue your journey to Melur beach in Barelang, which is located not far from the refugee camp. On this beach, you can enjoy exotic and natural scenery.
You will get a clear explanation about the daily life of the refugees by visiting a building previously used as a UNHCR office. In this building, you can see pictures of thousands of refugees who once lived on the island. You can also see pictures of incidences incured by the Vietnamese during their time here. This building is now used as a reception office and information center for visitors.
To get to Galang island you must go by the impressive Barelang Bridge from Batam island then pass three other bridges before you reach Galang island. There is no public transport since the island is sparsely populated. Your only option to reach Galang is by taxi or rental car.