Green Island experience

I participated in a “Human Rights Camp” on Green Island from 19-22 July. The article that follows are my thoughts after returning.

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When the boat arrived at Green Island (綠島) my first impression was that the island was incredibly green, verdant, a rich tropical paradise. Most people come to the island for a holiday, but I was here to join the “Human Rights Camp” (綠島人權之路青年營) along with sixty other students and a group of teachers and former political prisoners. It was a different experience of Green Island, but it was incredible and something I will never forget.

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After arriving at the Gongguan Primary School we walked across to the “13 zhong dui” (十三中隊). This was the grave yard on the island for those prisoners who never had the chance to leave. Some of the elders came to the front and spoke about their friends and sang songs in tribute to them. We observed a minute’s silence and before leaving we laid white lilies on the graves. It was a very sobering experience and a very direct reminder that some people made the ultimate sacrifice.

On returning to the Gongguan Primary School we began the intensive program of talks and lectures to learn more about the White Terror period. It began with watching the documentary “White Terror Witness” (白色見證) and then was followed by a lecture on White Terror in the 1950s. Some of the elders then spoke directly about their experience. The point that stuck most in my mind was that those who were arrested only had minimal involvement in political activities. However, they were given harsh sentences without any proper trial.

On the morning of the second day we again walked out past the graveyard, this time to visit the Swallow Cave (燕子洞). Here the elders spoke about how they put on shows in the cave including a play about Koxinga (國姓爺). Next we went to visit the prison of the 1950s and learn about the prisoners’ experience of that time.

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The program continued in the afternoon, looking at White Terror in the 1960s. After the lectures we went to visit the prison used in the 1960s. In one of the prison cells Mr. Tsai explained about how the prisoners’ conditions were at that time. The rooms at that time didn’t have such big windows or good ventilation. The toilet space was smaller and the men had to use the toilet to shower in. 15 people were kept in a single cell and had to sleep head to toe. One student asked Mr. Tsai what the prisoners talked about during the day. Mr. Tsai said that many of the prisoners were university professors or professionals. They had a lot of knowledge that they could share and teach the others. He also said that sometimes they sang songs. He broke into a rendition of “We shall overcome”. It was truly moving to hear this powerful song and how it resonated through the prison walls. It was as if it was echoing into the past. The extraordinarily strong spirit the men showed in enduring the terrible conditions did overcome. Their presence there today, and their freedom, was testimony to this.

In the evening we had the chance to talk with the elders in small groups. We had already had the chance to hear about their experiences on Green Island, but our group asked them more about their lives after they left Green Island. The positive spirit they showed in the prison continued throughout their lives. Although they faced difficulties in life they had a great determination. I admire the amazing spirit of the elders. They can teach us so many important lessons about life.

The third day began with watching the movie “Super Citizen Ko” (超級大國民). Most of the dialogue in this film was in Hoklo Taiwanese, but I was very grateful that one of the members of the group helped translate some parts of the movie so I could understand the main ideas. The movie was followed by a talk about representations of White Terror in Taiwanese cinema. Mr. Chen, one of the former prisoners mentioned that in “Super Citizen Ko” they depicted a prisoner walking to execution in silence. However, he said that actually when a prisoner was going to be executed their would be singing and making a lot of noise.

In the afternoon second and third generation family members of political prisoners talked about how they were affected by their parents and grandparents’ experience. This helped me to understand how White Terror affected the families of political prisoners and continues to be felt in the present by younger generations.

Another lecture followed on the topic of transitional justice, although a key point was that Taiwan had experienced transitional injustice. Taiwan has a long way to go if it is to experience transitional justice, but it is very important to ensure democracy. So far Taiwan has been very successful in holding elections at every level, but other aspects of democracy are still weak.

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The final evening saw a wonderful variety of musical performances. The elders sang with their typical exuberance. The evening closed with a powerful performance by Panai (巴奈) and her husband Nabu (那布). Before leaving on the final day we all went to the human rights memorial for the closing ceremony. Certificates were presented and each group gave a small performance. While it was the end of the camp, I was sure that many of us will continue to meet again in the future.

Before I went on the trip to Green Island I already knew something about White Terror. I understood some of the reasons why Chiang Kai-shek acted as he did and knew about some of the important acts of resistance. The big picture is one thing, but the most important lesson I learnt from Green Island and the elders was that every person involved in the White Terror had a story to tell. White Terror affected the political prisoners and their families in a myriad of ways and it continues to reverberate in the present. We must not just try to learn history, but try to learn as much of possible of everybody’s story. A key to transitional justice is understanding the past and ensuring that the same mistakes are not repeated in the future.

中文版綠島經驗

8 thoughts on “Green Island experience

  1. An excellent and interesting post Dave. I totally agree that Taiwan is far from experiencing transitional justice. In the end analysis, as you hint, democracy may not be sufficient to protect Taiwanese from further injustice in the future.

  2. Highly interesting post, thank you !

    What I think is interesting is that even though “everyone” know who the persons involved are and where they live, no one has sought revenge just like it’s happning now in Germany and Romania.

  3. Sounds like an informative and great trip David. Do you have any books you can recommend on the era of White Terror?

  4. Todd, two books that I can think of are A Taste of Freedom by Peng Ming-min and Elegy of Sweet Potatoes by Tehpen Tsai.

  5. I went to green island 6 years ago. I visited the same places as you did, but at that time no Taiwanese wanted to company me, because the “unrested of the dead prisoners” were still around.
    I guess the Taiwanese in your group were more interested in green island as a tourist spot than into the history of the political prisoner camp.
    It’s a pity that you didn’t have a chance to go to Orchid Island and see the barrels of nuclear waste lying around on the beach and the many defected Aboriginal children.
    I’m excited to hear, see and read more about it on next Wednesday at AI’s next meeting.

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