Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Radical Priest Looks Back on Prison

January 7, 2003

LIMERICK-born priest Fr. Pat Moloney was in the head-lines in the 1990s, convicted of possessing stolen Brink's money. He recently met with DYLAN FOLEY to discuss his time in prison, and his thoughts on Ireland.

IN the mid-1990s, graffiti appeared all over the Lower East Side of Manhattan, saying "Free Father Pat" emblazoned over an anarchist symbol.

During that period, Fr. Pat Moloney, a Limerick-born street priest, was locked up in a federal prison in Pennsylvania, convicted of possessing money stolen in a Brink's robbery, sick from rancid food and banned from working as a priest. Fr. Moloney lived like a monk on bread and water, running a covert ministry with a ceramic chalice, serving wine made out of fermented raisins and counseling fellow prisoners.

Four years out of prison and back on the Lower East Side working with troubled youths, Fr. Moloney recently told the Irish Voice he is still enraged over what he calls his unjust imprisonment. "The `F-B-Lie' had me convicted on flimsy, circumstantial evidence," he said. "They needed a scapegoat."

In January 1993, a Brink's armored car was robbed in Rochester, New York, and $7.4 million was stolen. Ten months after the robbery, the FBI arrested Fr. Moloney when $2 million was found in an apartment he held in Stuyvesant
Town. Fr. Moloney was convicted of conspiracy to possess federally insured money.

The intense priest held a four-hour sit-down with the Irish Voice in front of Lazarus House, his youth residence on East Ninth Street in Manhattan. The only break was when the 70-year-old Moloney took 20 minutes to say Mass for a group of lay Catholics who support the home. Moloney told stories ofhis brutal prison experiences, his efforts to rebuild Lazarus House and his views of the Northern Irish peace process.

MOLONEY'S federal conviction in 1995 started his trip into prison hell. For several months he was bounced between prisons across the country, from Minnesota to New York.

"They put me on the `circuit therapy,' where they keep you on the road for weeks," said Fr. Moloney. "They sneak you out and try to lose you in the system."

Fr. Moloney finally arrived at a federal prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania, where the diminutive priest was thrown in with stone-cold killers and mobsters. Fr. Moloney, however, was given respect by his fellow prisoners.

"The Mafia guys believed I was framed," he said. "They had followed the case."

There was also a mystique following Fr. Moloney. There was still at least $5 million of missing Brink's money out in the world.

The prison experiences were surreal and horrifying. "One day, the guards brought in a prisoner who had 10 bodies on him," said Fr. Moloney, using prison slang for a killer who had committed 10 murders. "He walked right up to me and embraced me." From then on, Fr. Moloney was a protected man.

"I was thrown from the Age of Reason to the Dark Ages," said Fr. Moloney. "To the state, the prisoner is a piece of garbage."

Fr. Moloney led an ascetic life. "For me, it was a catacombs-like existence. I lived a life of prayer in the mountains."

He had succeeded in smuggling into prison his missal and Jesus beads, the knotted prayer beads he wears to this day. He took confession from Catholicprisoners, and counseled Muslims and Jews alike. Fr. Moloney also battled with prison authorities -- he threatened a hunger strike when guards tried to confiscate his vestments.

In 1997, Fr. Moloney's adopted son Jason was murdered in an apparent robbery in the Bronx. The warden refused to let Fr. Moloney attend the funeral.

In an absurd moment on the day his adopted son was buried, Fr. Moloney was called into the warden's office. The guards asked him if the warden's life was in danger because he wouldn't let Fr. Moloney attend the funeral. A defiant Fr. Moloney was later thrown in solitary confinement when the prison officials discovered that he had used a prison pay phone to say the funeral Mass in Hell's Kitchen via speaker-phone.

In November 1993, Fr. Moloney had been arrested with Sam Millar, a Northern Irish native and "blanket man" from the Long Kesh prison protests of the 1970s. Along with the $2 million the FBI claimed to have found in the
Stuyvesant Town apartment, they also found $168,000 at Lazarus House.

The FBI determined that only $100,000 was from the Brink's job. The evidence was videotapes of Fr. Moloney and Millar entering the apartment. In the end, Fr. Moloney and Millar were convicted of conspiracy to possess federally insured currency.

The story of Fr. Moloney's relationship to the Brink's money is murky. Fr. Moloney said he believed the $2 million belonged to an Irish illegal gambling syndicate that Millar worked for. "The money found at Lazarus House," he said, belonged to Polish and Irish illegal aliens.

"The FBI had no audio-tape, no videotape, no shred of evidence that linked me to the money," said Fr. Moloney. "They tried to destroy my character. I can look you eye to eye and tell you the FBI are liars. I had nothing to do with that money."

BORN in 1932, Fr. Moloney came from a staunch Republican family. His father was an anti-Treaty IRA man who was imprisoned in the Curragh during the Irish civil war.

"If I had stayed in Ireland I would have a been a rebel one of the most fanatical," said Fr. Moloney of his own Republican sympathies.

Fr. Moloney's career, however, took a different path As a young man, he aspired to be a Catholic hermit, but wound up coming to the U.S. in the mid-1950s to become a civil rights priest.

Instead of going to the American South, Fr. Moloney ran a New York literacy program as a lay Catholic. He was heavily influenced by the radical Catholic activist Dorothy Day, who worked with the poor on the Lower East
Side. A supporter bought him a battered tenement building in 1961 and he set up Lazarus House for troubled young men. It took him three decades, but he was eventually ordained as a priest in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, which is loyal to Rome.

As the interview took place in front of Lazarus House, troops of nursery school students walked by on their way to Tompkins Square Park. Localpeople interrupted him to say hello and Fr. Moloney's own brother, a handyman and father of seven, passed the building. The brother had spent time in an Irish Republic prison for gun possession.

A young lady came up and reintroduced herself to Fr. Moloney. She knew him when she was a psychiatric patient at a city hospital, where Fr. Moloney is a night chaplain. She asked Fr. Moloney if he could help her find decent housing.

A while later, a handsome elderly Italian-American priest, an old friend of Fr. Moloney's, comes up. The two priests talk in hushed tones about a third priest who was tossed out of his New York City rectory on charges of sexual abuse. The archdiocese had turned its back on the accused priest. "I would not refuse to help that man find a place to stay," said Fr. Moloney vehemently.

In the 42 months that Fr. Moloney was in prison, Lazarus House was barely kept alive by lay volunteers. The residence, which receives no public money, had once housed and schooled 30 boys at a time.

Now there are less than half a dozen young men living there. A fire damaged the stately but battered building.

Released from prison in 1998, Fr. Moloney is still rebuilding. He gives a tour of his "store," a thrift shop full of furniture for sale. "I couldn't survive without the help of some Irish superintendents," he said.

The men work in luxury apartment buildings on the Upper East Side. When the wealthy throw out their Sub Zero refrigerators and their Viking stoves, the supers give them to Fr. Moloney, who sells them to benefit Lazarus House.

Plugging Fr. Moloney's name into Internet search engines turns up anti-Catholic Web sites from Belfast that portray Fr. Moloney as a bloodthirsty priest. The trashy London tabloid News of the World also told of Fr. Moloney speaking at a Clan na Gael meeting where he said that Ireland would not be free until every British soldier were off Irish soil, leaving dead or alive.

Fr. Moloney said the article was a complete fabrication, that he was never at that meeting, but he wishes the British Army a quick return to England. "All I wish the British soldiers is slain abhala--`safe home,'" he said.

FR. Moloney said he had serious concerns about the pervasive lack of economic justice in the North. And then there is the disarmament of the IRA. "If (British Prime Minster Tony) Blair wants the IRA to disarm, why doesn't he pull his Gestapo troops out of Occupied Ireland?

"I believe in peace with justice, and a war of defense, not offense," he said. "I would like to see peace given a chance, but only a little while ago, I spoke to kids in the Occupied Zone," what Fr. Moloney calls Northern Ireland. "They said, `Peace me eye.' With British occupation, there is not true peace.

"Two years ago, I met with seven men who spent 10 or more years in British prisons and were released under the Good Friday Agreement. They didn't see their comrades die just to surrender. They supported Gerry Adams, but were not happy with a divided country."

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dirk Wittenborn on his Novel "Fierce People"

Not Enough Devils

Hartford Courant

August 04, 2002|


In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dirk Wittenborn's career as a New York writer was golden. He was collaborating with Gilda Radner and John Belushi of the original ``Saturday Night Live'' ensemble and had two acclaimed novels under his belt, including 1983's ``Zoe.'' Then, Wittenborn almost destroyed himself with a cocaine addiction and was told he'd never work again. He also nearly died from a rare virus that literally turned his heart to stone.

Now the 50-year-old Connecticut native has turned things around, with a new daughter, and his first novel in 18 years, ``Fierce People'' (Bloomsbury), the story of a teenager swept into the world of the dangerously ultrarich. ``I have to quit, because you should," said Wittenborn, waving a lit cigarette as he sat down with the Courant in Manhattan, "but I have all these writing deadlines to deal with."

Northeast: How did your family wind up in Connecticut?

Wittenborn: My father taught at Yale. We lived in Hamden. My father came to New Haven with a classic Midwestern fascination with Eastern gentility. His specialty was psychopharmacology. In the 1950s, he was on the cutting edge -- memory, learning and drugs. As a kid, I was fascinated by his gruesome tales. He didn't censor himself around the kids. He once told me about a woman who worked in the mental hospital kitchen, who killed her husband, cut him up and fed him to the chickens. These stories were a writer's paradise.

Northeast: Do you have your own experiences with rich people behaving badly?

Wittenborn: It is very hard for the really rich people not to behave badly. There is a line in the book, and I am paraphrasing myself, that ``Rich people seem more screwed up, but they don't have anything to do all day, so they can act like themselves.'' I was the poor boy at the party. I was middle class in a rich enclave.
When people talk about how they are seduced by wealth, they make it sound like a scene out of ``The Godfather.'' It is much more subtle than that. If people have a lot of money, it is hard to say no to them. There are many people waiting to sell their souls, to sell their firstborn. The tragedy is that there are not enough devils.

Northeast: You had become a successful screenwriter and script doctor. Why did you return to novels?

Wittenborn: I hadn't written a book in a long time. I was a very destructive person at one point during my career in the 1980s. It was the era when sex was safe and cocaine was not addictive. I got very sick. I'd caught a virus, probably in Indonesia, that went unchecked. It felt like my organs were coming detached. My heart was calcified, encased in stone. The doctors took it out of my body and peeled it like an orange. It was a second chance. I threw myself into scriptwriting, but each year I didn't do a novel, it loomed larger and larger. I had terrible writer's block. A therapist suggested that I recreate the last time it was fun to write fiction, which was when I was in my 20s. I got a manual typewriter, I bought a record player and all the 1970s music -- The Clash, Bob Dylan. It was the typing, the visceralness. Your fingers hurt, but by the time they are numb, you are on a roll.

Northeast: You have survived drugs and heart disease. Do you have any views on the destructive artistic impulse?

Wittenborn: What I worry about is the perversity of myself, that I wanted to see if I could wreck it all and build it up again. I feel lucky to have lived through the heart operation. You come to the city to be a writer, and you become cynical, hard-hearted. Having that heart operation stripped me bare. I'm not a Catholic, but I paid for my irresponsibility, my childishness.

Northeast: During your downward spiral, were you really told you would never work again?

Wittenborn: Those were my friends! People told me I'd never sell another novel again. People are very harsh. It's like you're the crazy Indian -- you have what other people are striving for and you throw it away. If they value talent, and you don't value it, it is very disturbing to people. There are some things I regret, but that made me who I am.

Northeast: What are you working on now?

Wittenborn: I have just finished the screenplay of my book for Griffin Dunne. My wife and I also had a baby last year. My wife's water broke on Sept. 11th. The baby was born three days later. She was fine. The birthing room had windows. I was holding my daughter in my arms, and an F-16 went down the East River. The seriousness of life puts things in perspective. I don't take things lightly anymore.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Rick Moody’s Biting American Satire

(Originally published in the Denver Post in September 2005)

By Dylan Foley

In his first novel in eight years, Rick Moody has crafted “The Diviners” (Little, Brown, $25.95), an over-the-top, biting satire of America in the immediate aftermath and chaos of the 2000 Presidential election. To write this novel, Moody followed one of the most mocked American art forms: the 1970s TV miniseries.

“That was the idea, for sure, was to write it in the form of a miniseries,” says Moody over a glass of steamed milk at a New York City coffee shop. “It turned out to be a really fun way to work. You could write in episodes and you don’t have to think about the larger story. I really only thought about the book in these little narrative chunks.”

One of the main characters of the novel is the nasty Vanessa “Minivan” Meandro, a New York independent film producer with an eating disorder and an addiction to Krispy Kreme doughnuts, as well as a skill at browbeating her staff of underpaid, talented women. These women, in turn, are preyed on by the married movie action hero Thaddeus Griffin, who keeps a desk in Vanessa's office in a desperate search for indy movie credibility and is always ready with script advice or a sexually transmitted disease. The plot twists when Vanessa’s assistant Annabel’s brother Tyrone, a brilliant artist and mentally-ill bicycle messenger, is accused of bashing an art curator with a brick. As America collapses into electoral cynicism, Vanessa latches on to an epic miniseries on diviners, the (probably) fraudulent art of finding water with a stick, from the Mongols of Asia to 19th century Sicilians and modern-day Massachusetts practitioners.

“The Diviners” is witty take on the entertainment industry and shaken faith in the political process, as the hanging chads of Florida lay uncounted. Moody explores America from New York to California in a time of great turmoil and angst.

Coming on the heels of his 2001 short-story collection “Demonology,” which openly mourned the death of his beloved sister, and the 2002 memoir “’The Black Veil,” where Moody wrote about his Puritan ancestors, his own nervous breakdown and the need for American guilt, the new novel would count as a hopeful book for the usually bleak Moody.

“This book was a palate cleanser,” says Moody. “’The Black Veil’ was so difficult to write and its reception was so complicated. I wanted to do the opposite of what I did in the memoir.”

Moody’s novelistic miniseries covers everything from Hollywood TV moguls who like underage handicapped girls and suburban revolutionaries with vandalism on their mind. “There were only two requirements for material to get into the book,” says Moody. “First, that it be fun, and second that it be connected to Vanessa and Tyrone, the main characters.”

True to miniseries form, the tangents are grand and promising characters, like Vanessa’s chain-smoking, embezzling accountant Lois DiNunzio, pop up and disappear. “Like so many things in the 1970s, it is so easy to say that miniseries like ‘Roots’ and ‘The Thornbirds’ were pathetic,” says Moody. “In terms of storytelling and production values, they were really cheap, but they were incredibly influential. ‘Roots’ actually had great pathos associated with it at the time.”

For Moody, the Florida election madness casts a dark shadow over the satire in the novel. “I found the election to be an interregnum between the Clinton and Bush eras,” he says. “It was a period of great uncertainty and my characters were pushed to more extreme and dramatic moments.” As insanity grips the people in the novel, the election is undiscussed, except for Vanessa’s crazed alcoholic mother, who while incarcerated in a psychiatric ward receives cell phone transmissions in her skull from Florida election workers.

To craft the obnoxious Vanessa, whose only saving grace appears to be the quality films she produces, Moody went personal. “I think Vanessa is a lot like me,” he says. “I’m never rude, but I can be an arrogant jerk. She’s also really a composite of all the people I know in the film world.”

Vanessa, though, is seduced into giving up her own independent film credibility to embrace a bankable miniseries.

“I was trying to figure out what the worst thing was that a film person could do,” says Moody, “and that would be a TV miniseries. This is a choice that every artist has to make: why don’t they go for the big sellout?”

Moody says he latched onto divining as a recurring theme in the novel because of his New England childhood. “Divining is extremely popular in Maine, where I grew up,” he says. “To me, it is a metaphor about how spiritual experience happens in the United States. A huge portion of it is manifest quackery. Yet despite that, there seems that there is something genuine happening.

“American culture, then, in the context of the book and for me, always has an element of fraud there.”

Moody fans will be surprised by the hope that is laced throughout the book. Unlike the unrelenting grimness of “The Ice Storm,” the prodigal son/bicycle messenger finds help from his alienated, adoptive parents, and Vanessa, cursed by her on-the-lam accountant to be struck by love, finds that she may be capable of a moving act of grace and kindness.

Readers shouldn’t worry that Moody has gotten all soft, easily dispensing redemption. The harsh satire continues at the end of the novel, where an unnamed Supreme Court justice, clearly based on Antonin Scalia, has a conflict-of-interest dinner with a TV executive friend as he holds America’s electoral fate in his hands. It turns out the brilliant, pompous jurist has his own dreams of screenplay-writing fame.

To develop “The Diviners,” Moody pulled out obscure pieces of information, from the speed records of New York bicycle messengers in the age of e-mail to outsider art and the domestic lives of Indian cab drivers. He abstained from obsessive research, he says, to keep a more organic feel to the writing.

Moody did, however, create Vanessa’s glorious Krispy Kreme orgy at the beginning of the book where she takes a cab to a dozen Krispy Kremes in New York through old-fashioned grit and determination. “I went to all the freestanding Krispy Kreme locations in Manhattan in one day,” says Moody. “I ate 14 doughnuts.”

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer form Brooklyn, NY.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

James Traub on the Debacles of the United Nation

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in November 2006)

In his book “The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power” (FSG, $26), journalist James Traub focuses on the last 10 years of the United Nations and its turbulent relationship with the world’s only superpower, the United States of America.

Since 1997, United Nations has been personified by its Secretary General Kofi Annan, a soft-spoken, charming career diplomat. The work of the United Nations and its elusive quest for world peace and stability is hobbled by its massive bureaucracy, slow decision-making process and a need to pander to the United States. Traub shows a United Nations battered by scandal and the institution’s refusal to support the U.S. war in Iraq . It is also a grim chronicle of the moral failure of the U.N., the United States and the other Western powers to address and stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, genocide in Rwanda and large-scale, ongoing massacres in the Darfur region of the Sudan. Thrown into the mix is the verbally abusive U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, who almost singlehandedly scuttles a U.N. reform plan in 2005.

Traub, a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, spoke to freelance writer Dylan Foley at a coffee shop in Manhattan.

Q. Why did Kofi Annan consent to three years of extensive access for you to write this book?

A. I had written a profile of Kofi Annan for the Times Magazine in 1998 and wrote about the U.N. and U.N. operations at various times up to 2003, when I started the book. The reason he said yes to access, given understandable reluctance, was because he knew me and he knew my work. He knew that I was no U.N. loyalist, but that I was a sympathetic critic. He felt that this book would be good for the institution. It’s not as sympathetic as he thought it was going to be.

Q. In your book, Annan comes off as a soulful, distant character. How would you describe him?

A. A longtime colleague of Annan’s, Kieran Pendergast, made a comparison of Kofi Annan to Ronald Reagan. He has that capacity to project warmth and so on. He’s not the self-deluded person that Reagan was, but there is this kind of empty space in the middle. His identification with the U.N. is total. For Annan, it is difficult to separate good for the institution from bad for the institution, from good and bad generally.

Q. Your book details the U.N.’s failure, along with the United States and the Western powers, to prevent ethic cleansing, genocide and mass murder in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. Where does this failure come from?

At the United Nations, there is this kind of really dysfunctional adaptation. It works something like this: “We in the Secretariat have learned from from long experience that the members are unwilling to grasp the nettle in the face of violence, to do the difficult thing and make a robust response. We adapt to this by not putting ourselves in a position where we will be demanding something that will not be forthcoming.” The culture of the institutions is shaped by its limitations.

Q. How do you compare the American relationships with the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations?

A. One can easily romanticize the Clinton era at the U.N., but that would be wrong. We tend to simplistically think that under Clinton, we were a multinational country and everybody liked us. Then along came George Bush and we became a unilateral country and everybody hated us. Under Clinton, we single-handedly toppled the last secretary general. We refused to pay our dues. By the time Kofi Annan became secretary general in 1997, the relationship between the U.S. and the U.N. was very bad. With the Bush administration, you had a toxic combination of America at the flood-tide of its powers, an administration skeptical of the virtues of multilateralism and the mobilizing force of 9-11, which says to the administration that we could not accept constraints on our behavior.

Q. During his second term, Annan was battered by scandals at the U.N. What was the effect on him?

A. He had a completely charmed life for the first six years of as secretary general. He was completely unprepared to be beaten up. Because of his glamorous existence, fate was waiting to get him, fate in the form of the Bush administration and the Iraq War. Starting with 2002, he was getting hammered--the Iraq War resolution, the U.N. officers killed in Iraq, the “Oil for Food” scandal, as well as the sexual abuse scandal in the Congo. Everything took a toll on him. If you suck all that poison in, it corrodes you.

Q. What was the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton’s effect on the latest reform process?

A. The irony was John Bolton is like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He’s going to be gone now, but he already did the damage. Vice President Cheney’s team demanded that they have a guy at the U.N. who believed the U.N. was bad and could be prevented from doing the bad stuff it does. Bolton has been an adroit, intelligent figure on Iran and North Korea. I don’t believe Bolton consciously thought he was going to wreck the reform process, but by infuriating everybody and by increasing everybody’s ill-favor, he made getting what the U.S. wanted with U.N. reforms that much harder.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Prostitution, AIDS, and "Social Evils" in Ho Chi Minh City

Here is an article I wrote in 1996 about Viet Nam and its impending AIDS epidemic. Despite a great opportunity to curb the spread of HIV and AIDS, the Vietnamese government blew it, ignoring the appeals of epidemiologists to undertake much stronger preventive measures.

(This article was originally published in the NIRA Journal, a Japanese publication, in the Summer of 1996)

by Dylan Foley

Vietnam appears to be on the edge of a devastating AIDS epidemic. The official figure for the number of HIV-positive people, 3,706 (with 148 deaths since the first case was recorded in 1990), is almost certainly underestimated by several orders of magnitude. Aid workers from non-governmental organizations say that estimates by the World Health Organization of 100,000 HIV-positive people in Vietnam are much closer to reality. More ominous are WHO reports that estimate 500,000 people in Vietnam will be HIV positive by 1998 unless massive education efforts slow the epidemic.

Vietnam still has time to prevent becoming another Thailand, with its one million HIV-positive citizens. Vietnam's only hope is through decisive and aggressive action: it must not only educate prostitutes and drug users--traditional sources for AIDS infection-- but must also create massive, active education and outreach programs directed at the mainstream population. The Vietnamese government has decided to fight the epidemic through an extensive if passive AIDS prevention campaign using television and billboards that explain HIV transmission, and by urging morality and monogamy.

The government is also setting up small programs for high-risk groups using the "harm-reduction" model of AIDS education, a hands-on method that uses outreach workers. Harm-reduction education teaches sex workers to use condoms and to avoid high-risk sexual activity. Intravenous drug users are also taught to use clean hypodermic needles and not to share injection paraphernalia with other users. Government AIDS policy also focuses on educating government employees like police officers and medical workers about HIV transmission. There is some education in the schools, but it is only on HIV and AIDS transmission; no sex education courses exist. Moreover, there are no special hospitals for AIDS patients. In the destitute Vietnamese medical system, where a patient's family must go to the black market to buy medicine, the AIDS drug AZT is given only to pregnant women.

In Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), the government and Save the Children both run similar programs using peer outreach workers, employing former sex workers to teach safe sex to prostitutes, and using former intravenous drug users to educate present drug users on how to avoid AIDS. Although the programs have the same goal--to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS--the way that they are run says a lot about the attitudes toward the sex workers and drug users whom they attempt to help.

The Vietnamese government has set up pilot syringe-exchange programs in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Save the Children has created pilot AIDS education and outreach programs with the hope that locally supported versions will eventually be run in other provinces in Vietnam.The government is now hopeful that more nongovernmental organizations will come into Vietnam to set up more projects.

Ho Chi Minh City is the epicenter of Vietnam's AIDS epidemic, with half the reported HIV cases coming from the city. Police figures estimate 33,000 prostitutes and 150 brothels there, though these figures are at least three years old. An estimated 10,000 IV drug users and 30,000 children live alone or with their families in the streets. In the past five years, more than a million people have come to Ho Chi Minh City to try to escape the crippling poverty of the countryside. Some women from the provinces inevitably wind up working as prostitutes.

Dr. Thue Vinh is a member of the District One AIDS Committee in Ho Chi Minh City. "When we first set the program up, in 1993, we had some resistance from the police officials. They did not understand why we gave condoms to sex workers; they said we were helping them to be prostitutes," Vinh explained. Attitudes are better, according to Vinh, because of the massive government AIDS education campaign. Among the general population, the knowledge about HIV transmission is high.

But the government campaign has some big holes. "We have classes in the schools on how HIV is transmitted," said Vinh, "but no sex education programs." Efforts to reach prostitutes who work in hotels are hampered by the hotels' refusal to accept free government condoms. Accepting the free condoms, the hotel managers reason, is the equivalent of pleading guilty to charges of promoting prostitution. They fear the police will shut them down.

Last February the AIDS committee also restarted their needle exchange, shut down two years ago because of conflicts with the police. The exchange has 87 clients out of the 500 users in the district. Estimates for IV drug users are bleak--the HIV infection rate may be as high as 80 percent. According to Aaron Peak, an American AIDS policy consultant in Vietnam, the addicts of Ho Chi Minh City frequent "shooting galleries," where they buy the opium they shoot and where one person injects all the clients, often with the same needle.

The District One Women's Union runs the government's peer outreach program to sex workers. At a recent meeting, eight former sex workers were gathered around a long table. The meeting was led by Hoa Hong, a Women's Union official who has never worked as a prostitute, and the mood was very serious. Hong asked each woman to make a report. Several women said the new law against social evils, known as Local Law 87, has forced prostitutes off the street because it is easier for the police to arrest them for vagrancy. Many of the sex workers now work inside, and some have resorted to having an accomplice drive them around on a scooter, allowing for quicker propositions with less danger of being arrested. Local Law 87, which cracks down on gambling, prostitution, and drug use, was passed last winter to appease Communist Party hard-liners in preparation for June's Party conference. It has put a damper on safe-sex education and condom distribution.

At Save the Children, the atmosphere was much more relaxed. The offices were in a large house and the sex workers' meeting was held on the floor, with the half-dozen women volunteers, all present and former sex workers, sitting and discussing their work while exchanging lively banter.

Truong is a former sex worker and staff member. Although more than 100,000 Saigon bar girls and prostitutes were sent to communist "reeducation" camps in 1975, that's whenTruong's career as a sex worker started. Her father, who had worked with Americans in Vietnam, was sent to a reeducation camp where he spent 11 years. To support her mother and brother, Truong sold her virginity at the age of 21 and spent 16 years as a prostitute. She stopped after she was recruited to do outreach for Save The Children four years ago.

"I'd say about 70 percent of the commercial sex workers start because of poverty," Truong said. "Most come from the provinces and are very poor; they have a low education level and no stable job. The Women's Union hates commercial sex workers. They don't try to determine the reasons why women sell themselves. They just say it is a social evil without knowing the reasons why."

Harm-reduction education has to be done without moral judgment, to actively address the needs of high-risk groups while appealing to their ability to take care of themselves. This flies in the face of abstinence models of HIV-prevention: don't have sex until you are married, don't have sex outside of marriage, don't do drugs ever.

Harm reduction is still controversial in the United States because it involves teaching members of groups at high risk for HIV infection how to protect themselves from AIDS, and to prevent those who are already infected from spreading the disease. Giving out needles and condoms acknowledges that drug addicts and prostitutes exist and are a part of society in Vietnam (as well as in just about every country); they cannot be simply disposed of by arresting them and sending them off to prison or reeducation camps.

Most AIDS education outreach efforts in Ho Chi Minh City are directed at high-risk populations. Besides drug users and sex workers, Save the Children also has projects doing HIV-prevention work with street children and gay men. In Vietnam, homosexuality is illegal.

Vietnam should be aware that the country has already entered a crisis. To slow the spread of HIV, the Vietnamese government should not merely wait for increased spending on the part of nongovernment organizations; it should itself increase spending on HIV prevention. For example, with new joint ventures between the government and foreign corporations being formed every week, the government could impose a small corporate tax to pay for increased AIDS spending.

The Save the Children program is small, with a staff of just 24 in addition to its 50 outreach workers, but it is vital. By approaching the sex workers with respect, they gain their confidence and give them tools with which to protect themselves. Though some sex workers still have unprotected sex despite knowing about AIDS, the outreach workers have changed attitudes, raised self-esteem, and helped sex workers convince their clients to use condoms.

As a first step, the Vietnamese government should expand the education and outreach toward high-risk populations. For example, the needle-exchange program in Ho Chi Minh City should be expanded to include all addicts interested, not just the five percent now involved. These education and outreach programs should also be set up on a smaller scale in the capital of each province: as affluence spreads through the country, attendant social problems such as prostitution will also become an issue in the smaller cities and town.

The European nongovernmental organization Medicins Du Monde has set up a "Condom Coffee Shop" in the city's youth center to educate young people about HIV and AIDS. "We are targeting the heterosexual population with education, trying to get to them before HIV spreads even further to the general population," said Martine David, the 23-year-old Canadian who runs the program. The coffee shop is staffed with young volunteers trained to discuss HIV and AIDS prevention with their teenage and young adult clientele. They stage puppet shows and dramas that address HIV and AIDS and distribute free condoms with names like Trust and OK. David said they hope to start inviting high school classes to the coffee shop. "There is no condom education in the schools," she said. "Mainly, the teachers are too shy."

"The government does a good job on AIDS education with TV and radio, but the attitudes don't change," said David. "People tell me 'I go out with good girls,' or 'I'm a university student.' They see AIDS as a problem for prostitutes and drug users."

Programs like the Condom Coffee Shop, though minuscule, are effective because they appeal to people's intelligence, as well as to their fear of AIDS. Programs like these need to be expanded and set up in different areas of Vietnamese society, such as bars catering to businessmen or farmers.

Government billboards and television announcements that warn of the risks of HIV and AIDS are necessary, but this passive form of education is not as effective as the more active, individual education that changes attitudes. In Ho Chi Minh City, a married man who has unprotected sex with a prostitute may read a billboard on his way home urging him to be faithful to his wife to avoid AIDS. But it is only by changing sexual practices and ways of drug use that AIDS in Vietnam will be curtailed.

While the first part of Vietnam's AIDS strategy should address high-risk populations, the second phase should deal with mainstream society. A comprehensive sex education program should be set up for high school and university students. If the teachers are too shy to teach it, specially trained instructors should be used. Outreach programs promoting discussions of safe sex should then be developed and used with groups such as labor unions and other professional bodies.

It is essential that the control of these programs not be limited to "official mass organizations" such as the Women's Unions and the Youth Union. There must be mass participation on a local level to promote active education, not just the passive education from billboards and television. It is as necessary to reach the farmer in the countryside with AIDS education as it is to reach the doctor or government clerk in the city.

Although cultural practices that prevent the candid discussion of sex and AIDS remain strong in Vietnam, it is necessary to try to change these traditions; it's also best if these changes are done by the Vietnamese themselves and not by foreign nongovernmental organizations. Unfortunately for Vietnam, HIV and AIDS do not respect cultural traditions.

Dylan Foley is a journalist based in New York City.