A former refugee leads families back to an Indonesian island so they can find graves

The World
A woman wearing a brown hat sits against a wooden wall with her hands folded under her chin

Carina Hoang is getting ready for a trip. It’s to a place most people have never heard of: Kuku Island, located in the remote Anambas region, in Indonesia. She’s going to look for graves.

“Ordinarily you don’t find people who just decide to go back to jungles and looks for graves of people [they] don’t know,” she says. “But so far, anytime people ask, I can never say no — because I know the way and they don’t.”

People don’t know the way to Kuku because most have never heard of it; it’s not even labeled on most maps. But for Hoang, Kuku holds special meaning. It’s the place where she was stranded almost 40 years ago when she was just 16 years old. It’s the place where she had to learn how to survive.

‘That’s not a refugee camp’

Hoang is originally from South Vietnam. After the Vietnam War, the country was left in a state of turmoil. Vietnam was taken over by the North Vietnamese, who instituted Communist rule. People were leaving the country by the tens of thousands.

But not Hoang’s family. Her father, a former lieutenant colonel, was imprisoned, and her mother had to stay to look after the very youngest of her children. So the family found a way for Hoang, then 16; her 12-year-old brother, Saigon; and her 10-year-old sister, Mimi, to escape.

In 1979 Hoang stepped aboard a boat with her siblings to flee Vietnam.

Hoang remembers the boat — 80 feet long by 15 feet wide —  was packed with 373 passengers.

“We sat with knees to our chin,” she recalls. “There was no room to move around or stretch your legs.”

They sailed for one harrowing week.

Their boat landed in Malaysia, where Hoang says authorities robbed them and then pushed their boat back into the sea, refusing to allow the refugees entry. After that, the ship ran out of food and water. People began to die on board.

On the eighth day, the boat landed in a small fishing village in Indonesia. There, the captain sank the ship so no one could be pushed back to sea.

The refugees were allowed to stay in the country, but they were told they would be moved to a refugee camp on a different island. So Hoang and her siblings willingly climbed aboard one last boat.

“The boat trip was long,” she remembers. “It was hours until we get to this island. We saw this half-moon shaped island, with a nice sand beach and trees.”

When she and the others got off the boat and swam to shore, Hoang sensed something was amiss.

“We looked around,” she says. “It was a jungle. We didn’t see any shelters, any huts, or any camp. It was just an island with trees and bushes. And in front of us was the ocean. That’s not a refugee camp.”

The island was completely deserted. There were no buildings, no paths, no sign of human life at all. It was completely wild. After they disembarked, the boat sailed away.

Hoang and her siblings slept that night on the beach, in the pouring rain. Everyone sat on the beach, waiting for the boat to return. One day passed. Then two.

“By the third day people started to realize that maybe this is where we’re going to be staying,” Hoang says.

‘People started to die’

This was Kuku Island — actually, it was Kuku Beach, on the larger Jemaja Island. But with jungle all around them and no boats to travel around, it was all the refugees knew. So they called the island Kuku.

On Kuku, there were no tools, no food reserves, no toilets. The refugees only had the things they’d brought with them to help them survive.

“There were a lot of coconut trees,” Hoang says. “But we couldn’t climb up the trees to get the coconuts. And also, if we got them down, we didn’t have knives, or anything to chop the coconuts with.”

The refugees had no other option but to learn to live off of the land. For most, it didn’t come naturally.

“I was scared to swim out there to catch anything,” Hoang says. “I couldn’t fish. Or hunt. I was scared of snakes and animals. I was afraid of going to the jungle.”

In the beginning, Hoang and her siblings lived off packets of ramen they’d brought with them. Every day she would open up one packet and break it into four corners. For one meal, the three of them together would share one corner of the packet. They were doing everything they could to survive, but disease began to spread. People began to suffer from malaria and diarrhea.

“People started to die on that island after day no. 10,” Hoang says.

The situation got so dire that Hoang soon lost hope.

“We hadn’t been eating for a couple of days,” she recalls. “My sister and my brother just lay there like dead bodies. They just whispered, and they said, ‘I’m so thirsty, I’m so hungry and so weak.’ Many times I thought, ‘We’re not going to make it.’”

But even as they grew weaker and weaker, the refugees still managed to hang on. They survived on fish and lizards and whatever else they could hunt.

So they survived for one month. Then two months Then three.

In that third month, they were startled by the sound of something flying overhead.

“We look up and there was a helicopter with the sign of the Red Cross flying around,” Hoang says.“People were jumping up and down and screamed and just waved. And that’s when we knew that we would be OK. And we survived. All three of us.”

‘This will be my last trip back to Kuku Island’

After the Red Cross came, Hoang and her siblings stayed on Kuku for five more months as the UNHCR established a refugee camp on the island. They were moved to another refugee camp on Galang for two more months before they were eventually resettled to the US. There, they tried to put Kuku behind them.

“I never thought I would ever see Kuku again or desire to,” Hoang says.

But Kuku found her. In the mid-1990s, Hoang’s aunt, who had also escaped Vietnam and been stuck on a nearby island in Indonesia, asked Hoang to go back. She wanted Hoang to find the body of her son, who had died there, and give him a proper burial.

When someone died on the Anambas islands, the refugees marked their grave sites with whatever large rocks they could find.

When other Vietnamese heard about Hoang’s trip to the Anambas islands, they began to ask her to take them back, too. At the time, there was very little information about the islands or how to get there. When Hoang had first visited the Indonesian Consulate, even the workers there had never even heard of the islands.

Even today, the journey is logistically complicated, requiring a plane flight to Singapore, a boat ride to Batam, another flight to Tanjung Pinang and then three more boat rides to reach Kuku. Hoang says each trip takes her months to plan, requiring her to notify local governments beforehand. Nobody pays her to do this work.

Those who contacted Hoang also wanted to locate the bodies of their loved ones and build them proper graves. So Hoang agreed to take one trip back to Kuku Island, which turned into two trips. Then three, four. By now, Hoang has returned seven times.

Since then, Hoang’s helped about 15 families find the graves of their loved ones. But, she says, while it’s gratifying and healing, it also takes a toll.

“After so many trips,” Hoang says, “I felt drained. It’s time for me to stop. This will be my last trip back to Kuku Island.”

Ten people sit on the wooden deck of small boat.
Passengers sit on the deck aboard the final boat to Kuku Island. The trip is long. There is a plane flight to Singapore, a boat ride to Batam, another flight to Tanjung Pinang and then three more boat rides to finally reach Kuku. Liz Mak/PRI

‘I tried to learn how to forget’

Tony Luu, 57, his mother, Truong On, 77, and his brother, Daniel, have joined Hoang’s last and final trip to Kuku Island.

Together, they are looking for the grave of Cao Luu, Tony Luu’s father, who died on the island almost 40 years ago. Luu says he’s anxious about what he may find.

Hoang and Luu both landed in Kuku in June 1979. They were among the very first boatloads to arrive on the island and they endured some of the most difficult months there.

Luu was 18 when he said goodbye to Kuku and left his father behind in a shallow grave. In all this time, he’s never talked to a single person about what happened there: How his father, sick with malaria, died on the island.

“I never thought that he could die,” Luu says. “And so I never want to talk about it again. I never even want to remember about it. And I tried to learn how to forget.”

But aside from the pain of his father’s death, Luu’s carried something much heavier along with him these past four decades. He thinks he played a part in his father’s demise.

“I was the reason why he died,” Luu says.

Luu believes his dad never had to leave Vietnam. Luu was 18 when they left and his parents worried that he would be forcibly enlisted and end up fighting, possibly in Vietnam’s border skirmish with Cambodia.

Luu is a reluctant participant on this trip back to Kuku Island, a place he’d rather leave behind. He’s here primarily for his mother, so she can fulfill her dream of properly burying her husband and paying respects to his grave.

“But I know I have to do this,” he says. “It’s just me, that I feel like I don’t have the courage, I don’t have the bravery. That bothers me.”

A younger woman wraps her arms around an older woman as they sit on the edge of boat.
Carina Hoang, left, and her daughter, right, embrace on the boat to Kuku Island. This is Hoang’s eighth and likely final trip to the island. Liz Mak/PRI

Kuku Island looks like it could be a resort island: Palm trees dot the beach and sway back and forth. The sounds of the aquamarine waves lull any visitor into a false sense of calm — because further back, the jungle looms.

Hoang has been crying since she spotted Kuku in the distance. Now, as she steps onto the sand, tears still fall.

“Now that I’m standing here, I really don’t know how we survived,” she says. “It’s a miracle. Look at this. No one in the outside world would know we are in here. There’s nothing but bushes and trees and jungle.”

The group follows Hoang, who, over the course of one decade and seven trips back, has considerable knowledge of the geography on Kuku. She heads for the creek, where Truong On remembers burying her late husband. Hoang says that she knows of a significant burial ground nearby. She’s found other graves there before.

Two people in large hats stand under a stone arch that is covered by leafy foliage.
This entryway was built to honor refugees on Kuku Island.Liz Mak/PRI

‘I placed that rock’

Some of the gravesites by the creek have large, plain concrete tombstones built over them etched with the names and dates of the deceased. These are the graves of people whose families have come with Hoang and found them.

Then there are the graves no one has come back for. Large rocks are scattered about and it’s unclear which are grave markers and which are simply rocks.

Today, searching for Luu’s father, will be the last time Hoang will hunt for a grave on Kuku.

Luu chose the rock to mark his father’s grave when he was 18. He remembers he was looking for a sizeable one, triangular, with rounded edges.

Hoang has brought local men along with her on the island to help with clearing the leaves and dirt obscuring the gravesites. When the group arrives in the area where the Luus start looking for their father, Hoang points to different rocks, asking the family which ones may look familiar. One catches their eye. They spend a few minutes looking at it, trying to remember where they placed their father’s tombstone almost 40 years ago. And then, after what seems to be only half an hour, Luu points to a rock with a triangular shape.

“I placed that rock,” he says.

There’s no way to prove that this is the very same rock Luu remembers just by looking at it. The only way to determine it was the one would be to excavate the remains and look for any of his father’s familiar personal effects or clothing. But the family has decided they don’t want to take such drastic measures. They don’t want to disturb the grave.

Three people stand in a jungle around a gravestone
Tony Luu, his mother, Truong On, and Carina Hoang make offerings to his father’s grave on Kuku Island. Liz Mak/PRI

For the Luus, despite the absence of total certainty, this is enough.

Luu’s mother has wanted to take care of her husband’s grave for 40 years. She washes the rock. Then she burns sticks of incens and plants them in the dirt alongside an offering of fruit. Each of the brothers has a moment alone with their father. Tony breaks down and sobs.

Hoang has been watching from behind. She, too, has been crying.

“I’m sad to see how sad the grave looks,” she says.

The rock is big enough to hold in two hands. There’s no writing on it, no etchings; it’s simply the best rock Tony could find back then, planted in a dirt clearing, on a desolate island in the middle of the ocean. It’s momentous, and at the same time, the makeshift headstone looks so forlorn.

A hand holds a plastic knife and is etching words into a wet tombstone
Brothers Tony and Daniel Luu etch words into their father’s tombstone.Liz Mak/PRI

‘They are not forgotten’

Before dark, the crew turns back. They cross the creek, walk out of the jungle, through the high grass, across the beach and climb back on the boat.

The next day, back at the guesthouse, Luu reflects on finding the grave. And while he says that this will help him move on, he also says there are some things he believes he’ll never get over.

“Sometimes,” he says, “I’m thinking back. If we knew how expensive a price we had to pay, would we still make the same decision?”

As for Hoang, it’s difficult to understand what would make her so willing to come back, time after time again, to this island where she experienced so much suffering. Hoang says her motivation stems from one memory that she can never forget.

“When we were on Kuku Island, we had no medication,” she says.“Sometimes I was there at night. I’d count the number of people who were dying sitting around me. In the morning [when] I’d come back, I know that there would be one or two less of them.

“Coming back here, I think that’s the least I could do for those who died here. And I think that the least that anyone can do is to bring their family back to visit them so they know that they are not forgotten.”

This story was made possible with the support of the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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