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Voyage becomes fight for survival

As Chen Fuxing tells it, the Golden Venture's odyssey to America was a trial of struggle and desperation.

The lack of food, water, light and space broke the 300 or so travelers down and a kind of Darwinian order took shape. The weaker ones, who typically got the last scraps of a daily meal of rice and water, would argue and beg for more, with disputes erupting into brawls among the passengers. People fell sick, but without anymedicine others would feel helpless and leave them alone.

Chen's voyage to America began nearly two years ago. He set out from a rural village in southeastern China, where busy meant a 10-hour day on the family's rice farm. He trekked through the mountains of Burma and Thailand, slept in an airless cabin the size of a small bathroom with three other people on one ship, and eventually became a virtual prisoner on the Golden Venture.

Chen, 30, a farmer and sometime factory worker, saw a darkness he never connected with his quest for America. "A lot of fighting was going on," he said, and shook his head. "I think it changed many people, being on that ship."

Chen and Yi Powen, another refugee, described their journeys, mainly through interpreters, during a news conference and in separate interviews at the maximum-security Lehigh County Prison and at the medium-security Salisbury Interim Correctional Facility in Bethlehem. Wearing prison blues and matching sneakers _ manufactured in China _ Chen at times tried out the halting English he had taught himself before leaving China. Asked what he hoped to accomplish in America, he said: "I'll take the Fifth."

Of 60 refugees whom prison officials asked to speak at a news conference, the two came forward in the hope that their families in China would see them on television and know they were not among the half-dozen people who died when the ship ran aground off Queens last Sunday.

Yi, who is 30 and the father of two sons, occasionally forced a smile at the roomful of reporters, though at times he appeared almost in pain, tense and touching his stomach. A tea leaf farmer, Yi was one of fewer than 100 refugees who traveled on the Golden Venture from Thailand to America, stopping to pick up Chen and about 200 other refugees in Mombasa in Kenya.

This is the story of their flight.

Chen Fuxing left for America on Oct. 22, 1991, his older brother having borrowed $25,000 from a loan shark to pay for Chen's chance at a new life. He took nothing but the clothes he wore and $1,000 his brother gave him for the 17,000-mile journey. At the Burmese border, he met up with a group of six other refugees and a guide, crossing over the mountains and into Thailand in a monthlong hike.

"Luckily, it didn't rain," he said. Along the way, some in his group fell ill, and Chen learned a cardinal rule of his unfolding voyage: See only to yourself. None of the other travelers would stop to help those who couldn't keep up, but all eight made it through the mountains. "We knew of other groups where people died, but we all managed," he said.

In Thailand, the group was brought to a warehouse _ they did not know where in the country it was _ and locked up with other refugees waiting for a boat. They waited more than six months for the Najd II, a passenger ship registered in Saudi Arabia. Nearly 300 Chinese bound for America climbed aboard the Najd II in August 1992, ferried to the ship on boats leaving from the coast near Bangkok.

Fighting for food

The passengers were assigned four to a cabin, largely as they boarded, Chen said. Some of the rooms were passable, but in some the air hung still and stale. The cabins had no toilets. The entire ship had only three toilets for the passengers.

The ship's crew would give the passengers one meal a day _ usually rice, with rare additions of sardines or vegetables, and barely enough potable water for each person. They would leave it up to the passengers or the smugglers to dole out the portions. Despite the sense of fear, arguments quickly erupted.

Each passenger received a bottle of water a day to clean themselves. But as the voyage wore on, the bottles came one every other day, and eventually, less frequently. The passengers began to smell and wilt from hunger. Without ventilation, the odors in the cramped rooms grew more difficult to bear.

Chen said he did not see any of the sexual abuse of women that Immigration and Naturalization Service officials described. Nor did he see whether any of the smugglers or their henchmen carried weapons on the Najd II.

But somehow, the passengers gained the clear impression there was friction between the smugglers and the ship's crew, and came to believe the Najd II would never make it to America.

At the time, the Najd II was floating off Mauritius, where the government had refused to grant it permission to dock. It refueled and steamed toward Mombasa, where some 200 or so stranded Chinese waited in hotels for the smugglers to patch together the final leg of their journey.

A floating prison

Around the same time Chen and the others were waiting in Mombasa, where they were free to swim in the ocean, walk the seaside port and go to the movies, the smugglers finally came up with the ship that would haul them to America, a rusting freighter with an unlikely name: the Golden Venture. If the Najd II was unbearable for some, the Golden Venture was hell for all, a floating human prison.

Yi was one of 90 or so passengers who boarded the Golden Venture from boats off Bangkok in February. The ship passed first through Singapore and then by the Cape of Good Hope off Africa, where it ran into a tempest that Yi feared would kill everyone on board.

But the ship made it safely through the storm, a sign Yi, and undoubtedly many other passengers, saw as an omen that they were meant to make it to America.

It was in Kenya that all the passengers who would land on the Rockaway sandbar Saturday night finally boarded the Golden Venture. When they first entered, the smugglers' representatives assigned them a sleeping space in the cargo hold and a blanket. They were confined to this space for the entire trip, an area roughly the size of a coffin. It was 6 inches on either side to the next body.

"We were ordered that this is the place we sleep, and this is the place we can walk around in," Chen said. "When we needed to go to the bathroom, we could go, but we had to come straight back to our places."

"We've arrived! Jump!'

On the last day or two of the trip, as the ship floated within sight of the East Coast, the men were not allowed to go on deck, but had to relieve themselves in the cargo hold, Chen said. That produced the nauseating stench immigration officials and police described after boarding the ship in New York.

The men knew nothing of a missed rendezvous with smaller boats that should have brought them to the coast, or of the mutiny aboard the Golden Venture that federal officials described in court last week. They knew only that at some point Saturday night, the smugglers spread the word: "We've arrived! Jump!"

"Most of us were pretty weak because of seasickness," said Yi, who said he was among the last to leave, jumping only as he saw that American agents were swarming toward the ship. "We were told as long as we set foot on American soil, we would be able to stay in this country."

Neither Chen nor Yi knew of a statement from Chinese officials that those refugees returned would be subject to "re-education," but they know their country's brutal recent history. "If we have to go back, we definitely will be punished," Yi said.

"It's taken us so much pain to get here," Chen added. "All we heard was Americans really champion human rights. We were under the impression we would get to stay."

The translator looked at Chen and said: "Somehow, in his mind, he's convinced you won't send him back to hell."