From A People’s History of the Hmong by Paul Hillmer
For those who escaped in the first few weeks, the situation was not nearly as grim. The Pathet Lao and Vietnamese had not yet placed patrols along the Mekong River or sent soldiers into the forest. “My wife and I still had sons in Vientiane,” recalls Pa Cha Kong, “so we decided to go there [instead of Long Tieng]. I owned a taxi, so it was easier for me to drive around. I was one of the earliest to leave the country, so it only cost me fifteen thousand kip [ten dollars] to rent a boat. I rented three . . . for my family and my relatives.” Kong was clearly not panic-stricken, staying behind long enough to donate his taxi to a Lao pastor married to a Hmong woman. “I told him, ‘if I come back to Laos someday, then this taxi is still mine, but if I don’t come back, you can have it to do God’s work.’ And then I left.”
Sao Lee, returned to Vientiane safe and sound after a harrowing and unsuccessful search for his mother, couldn’t leave Laos without her but couldn’t risk another journey to Pha Khao. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, she showed up on his doorstep with his brother Ying, his sister-in-law, and a baby that was little more than two weeks old. “They were very clever!” exclaims Lee. Getting to Ying’s house was easy enough, but when they tried to travel to Vientiane, the road was blocked. “So they turned . . . to Sayaboury. Then they came back to Luang Prabang [and] just came by plane straight to Vientiane. . . I just felt very happy that suddenly everybody was there in Vientiane!” Sao Lee appealed to the same Lao police captain who had helped him obtain his travel pass through Hin Heup. “[H]e organized a rowing boat–up to ten, fifteen people could fit in that big, long boat . . . Then at nighttime . . . he brought . . . a Lao, who . . . watched, and when the [patrol] boat passed, he said, ‘Quick, quick, quick!’” Lee and his family jumped in the boat, and their Lao boatman noiselessly rowed them to Thailand.
Sao Lee and his family were fortunate. His older brother, Yia Lee, had completed his master’s in social work from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, in late 1974. He had submitted his thesis but decided to wait for his graduation in May 1975.
And then even before I had the graduation and got my degree, [the Communists took Laos], and my family’s in Thailand. And I said, “Oh, wow! What am I going to do now?’ There was no point for me to go back to Laos. I’ve got no one there. If they’re all in Thailand, it would be a danger for me if I went to Laos. We didn’t know what the Pathet Lao would do. Everybody was so scared . . . All the Western countries were very sympathetic . . . [so] I applied to the Australian government to stay on as an asylum seeker. It took them quite awhile to make a decision. It took them about maybe five, six months. So in the meantime, I was just working away in the factory, supporting myself.
Yia Lee, eventually granted asylum, worked with his fellow Hmong students to petition the Australian Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense to investigate the refugee crisis in Thailand and allow their family members to migrate to Australia. In time, Sao Lee and his family joined Yia Lee “down under.”
But for every tale of good luck, reunion, and ultimate safety that provides a redemptive finale to a story filled with the suffering and deprivation of war, the abandonment at Long Tieng, and the fear of being stalked by starvation and enemy soldiers, there are probably many more that still haunt those who tell them.
Jer Xiong Yang had seen death, mayhem, and unspeakable misery on the battlefield, but “we suffered the most,” he says, “when we were in the jungles.” There were perils almost too numerous to mention for those who crept quietly southward toward the Mekong River. Most immediate was the fear of running out of food. For many Hmong, starvation had set in even before their journey began. While some brought along as much rice as they could carry, it almost inevitably ran out too soon. Those who brought livestock ended up slaughtering them quickly and sharing the meat with others or simply leaving the animals behind. Fungchatou Lo’s family had been hiding in a mountain village when, just before the harvest season of 1977, they heard Communist soldiers were heading their way:
That was the practice of the Communists. By attacking the people who resisted them, at the time that the crop was about to be harvested so that they don’t have food to eat, they would [force their enemy to] surrender or starve to death . . . [W]e had to eat just about anything we could find. The best food that you could find at that time, if you were very lucky, was a yam-and corn. Not rice. Rice would be like steak now . . . And after yams and corn were gone, then we started eating roots . . . and tubers, and anything that was soft that would keep your body moving.
But many of the foods foraged from the jungle contained toxins that could sicken, immobilize, or even kill those who ate them. “[C]ertain roots you have to be very careful and wash over and over and over and over, until the poison was diluted. [The water where one washed these roots] actually turned black. So when you walked into a town, the first thing you looked at was the water. If there were colors in the water, then you knew that this town was starving for food . . . [If] there was a village where the water was clean, clear, you said, ‘For some reason they can find food here. We’ll stay here for a little while.’”
By the time Lo’s group reached the Mekong, their food was gone; many of the young children were crying from hunger.
We knew the Communists were near, because their military base was right along the Mekong River. And so the best thing you could [do to] keep the children quiet was to [give them] opium . . . to go to sleep and keep them quiet. [But] without knowing the . . . amount of opium you [should] give, you could destroy a life. So my young sister . . . was crying, and my mother put a little bit of the opium . . . into a spoon of water and then forced it down my sister’s throat. And then, thirty minutes later, she didn’t move! And so what do you do? . . . [N]ot only my sister but all the children were being poisoned by opium. But one of the fortunate things was they went into a deep sleep, but no one died.
Many others were not so lucky. Fear of detection led to an unknown number of unintentional homicides, as well as outright abandonment or murder for the sake of the greater good. One Hmong woman is still haunted today by the memory of her little brother. He was slowing down everyone else and wouldn’t stay quiet, so she took him to a secluded spot in the forest, gave him something to play with, told him she would be back, and then left him behind.
The Mekong itself posed another grave danger. As mountain people, many Hmong had never learned to swim. Family members all too often drowned while trying to cross–or watched helplessly as others did.
Of all those interviewed for this book, perhaps no one experienced more misfortune and lived to tell the tale than Chia Xiong. Already twice widowed by the time of the Long Tieng evacuation, Xiong had borne five children, but only two survived. The oldest was already in Thailand, leaving her with her youngest, Cher Chia Yang. Almost constantly on the run, Xiong and her extended family eventually surrendered to “the Vietnamese” at Muong Oun. They lived there only a short time, she says, before the area was overrun and they were forced to flee once again. “We kept moving and hiding in the forest, but finally we couldn’t survive any longer, so . . . we moved back and surrendered ourselves once again.” At that point, Xiong made a decision she would later regret. She sent her young son, barely more than ten years old, to Thailand. He would be better off, she thought, with his brother. Like Sao Lee’s mother, Xiong was loath to leave her possessions–and the only way of life she’d ever known–behind. “I didn’t even have much of anything, but I still worried and treasured all those things . . . So I stayed behind . . . After he left, I missed him so much that I couldn’t see myself staying any longer.” Her son felt the same way. Now in his forties, Cher Chia, who lives with his mother, her third husband, and his own family, strained to control his emotions as he told the story of parting from his mother. Two of his cousins, accompanied by several other relatives, were soon back to retrieve her. They stayed for about a month, carefully planning their journey and how to cover their tracks before they departed.
When she left her village, Xiong traveled in a party of about one hundred people. But when they reached the village of Na Pha, approximately two hundred others, representing a number of different clans, joined them. They approached a small river north of the Mekong and stopped to gather food. Encountering a Lao man and fearing he would betray them to nearby soldiers, they asked nothing of him and retreated northward. Hiding for a time, they cautiously made their way back south.
The Laotian must have tipped the soldiers . . . When we returned to the river . . . some people were . . . drinking water. Just then gunshots came from everywhere. Many people lost their lives . . . [T]he nephew who led the group had a wife carrying a three-month-old baby on her back. During an ambush, they were afraid that the baby’s crying would give them away, so he took the baby from her back and tossed the baby into the water . . . But the Communists shot and killed his wife and his mother right on the spot, along with another child. [P]eople were running, drowning, and dying everywhere.
Devastated and panic-stricken, separated from her nephews, Xiong retreated northward once again. When she regrouped with other survivors, she learned that one of her nephews had been killed, along with two of his children. Her other nephew adopted the surviving children into his family and then led those with him to Pa Xang, where they surrendered. It would take months for her nephews’ wives back in Thailand to discover what happened and hire Thai “coyotes” to rescue them. Chia provided her guide with her silver necklace as a first installment, knowing her family would help finance the balance of her debt when she arrived at Nong Khai refugee camp. But she knew others had already paid a steep price for her indecision.
Even in Thailand, Chia Xiong’s luck did not change. She was transferred to Ban Vinai while her youngest son, Cher Chia, remained behind at Nong Khai.
Despite her many trials, Chia Xiong was ultimately reunited with her son. But again, for every story of reunion, there is one of parting. Vue Yang’s parents willingly gave him up so he could enjoy a brighter future. Only a small boy in 1977, Yang had spent two years hiding in the jungle with his family, about two thousand others, and a “shaman lady” who told them when danger was imminent and they needed to move. When their food finally ran out, the women and children went ahead to surrender. If the Communists knew they had control of the women and children, it was thought they would accept the men’s surrender more easily. “All the kids were just scared and crying that if they ever go to . . . a Communist school, they will be gone until they are grown up, and if they are lucky, they might return back to see their family. If they are not lucky . . . they would disappear without knowing about their family.” One night Vue was playing outside when he heard his father calling him. Expecting he had chores to perform, he told his friends he would return as soon as he completed them. In a hushed tone, Vue’s father asked him what kind of education he wanted. “I was concerned. I said, ‘Why are you asking me that?’ . . . ‘We’re thinking about getting an education for you, but it’s up to you.’” Vue made it clear he wanted no part of a plan that sent him far away to study under a Vietnamese system. He had no idea what he was setting in motion.
“At that [time] there were [Hmong] guerilla groups returning back from Thailand. They were messengers sent by General Vang Pao to relocate their family members or relatives or to see how the movement was organized and so forth. There was one gentleman who was close to my father . . . So [my parents] decided to send me out along with him so I could be . . . in a different country to live a better life or to educate myself properly rather than going under Communist education.”
That same night, Vue’s parents packed a small bundle for him; his father said, “Follow me.” Frightened by the darkness and the furtive nature of their journey, Vue protested, but his father replied, “Son, quiet. I’ll take you to get a good education. No talking . . . if anybody hears about us, then we will be killed.” His father’s words only amplified his fears. They traveled to Vue’s uncle’s guerilla camp, and there his father simply said, “You stay with your uncle here, and he will take you to get a better education. Don’t be concerned about us. I will follow you shortly.” His father then turned and disappeared into the darkness. Yang, left in the care of a strange uncle, began a long, hushed journey through the wild. He was only a boy in the company of well-armed men. His uncle spurned all of his many questions, simply telling Vue to stay close and keep quiet. “Whenever you get sore legs or you cannot follow us, let me know. I will take your hand . . . Just stay with me, and I’ll try to protect you as much as possible.”
After what seemed like several days of nonstop walking, the group reached the top of a high mountain. Finally, his uncle said, “‘Son, look at the blinking lights over there–it’s like stars over there. That’s where we’re heading . . . Those blinking lights are in Thailand. They’re in a totally different country.’ That’s what he told me only. So we just followed by instinct, and there was no guarantee of safety.” After walking even more cautiously toward the Mekong River, the rest of the men vanished into the night. Vue was told by his uncle that he would be swimming across, riding on an inflatable “water balloon” tied with a simple string to his uncle’s backpack. He was to make sure the string remained tight. If it became slack, he was separated from his uncle, and “I needed to whisper ‘Uncle! I am lost!’”
With that, his uncle slid into the water. “In a second, I tried to grab back on my string. And I did not feel my string at all, so I whispered back to my uncle, ‘I’m lost, I’m lost!’ And suddenly . . . I saw him appear back. Then he said, ‘Hand me your string.’ So I handed him my string . . . And at that time he put me into a secure position, so the string was never loose again. And then he kept pulling me, and we were going in the river until early morning, like 2:00 AM.” They reached the other side after what surely must have seemed like an eternity to a young boy. “[My uncle] said . . . ‘We are lucky that we are safe here . . . [I]n the border here, the Communists are patrolling . . . and we could be located or targeted, too.’ So we took a rest along the shore there for a few hours, until the daylight was on, and we could hear the rooster crowing from the other side of the river . . . [A]t that time I felt sad . . . I knew right away that I would never see my parents again.” But Vue (now Edward) Yang never forgot his parents’ sacrifice for the sake of his education. He is now a teacher at Achieve Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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