By Richard Stone
“The Hidden War” is the U.S.’s intensive campaign waged in Laos and Cambodia during the Viet Nam War era that was never sanctioned by Congress or acknowledged by the Johnson administration. It changed both countries drastically.
Since many Laotians were persuaded to wage war against the Communists–sometimes in self-defense, sometimes because the U.S, promised assistance (not fulfilled), they became refugees when a Communist government took control. The U.S. finally re-located some of these refugees into our country, and many have settled in Fresno
Healing Hope is an agency that provides a full range of counseling and social services primarily to the Hmong community but also to other Southeast Asian refugees. Mor Xiong is its intrepid founder and director. She asked me to relate the stories of some of the agency’s clients as mediated by a translator. Here are two of a series of four tales of escape and relocation which we will publish in the next couple of months.
Zoua Xiong is a petite woman, dressed neatly in a stylish black lace top and attractive but modest bracelets on both wrists. Her still-dark hair is brushed back and gathered in a brief ponytail. Her face—clear-complected and clear-eyed—is open, and she speaks at length with animation in answer to our questions. By the end of the interview, her composure has given way to tears.
Before and during the war
Zoua was one of six children living with their parents in a farming community in rural Laos. She has virtually no memory of life before the war, which came to them when she was only five. She knows only that her father joined the army to fight with the Americans, but till today she has no sense of why—why the Americans were good and the Communists were bad. She remained unaware of the political situation, and the family identified only as Hmong, not as Laotian under attack.
Sometime after her father left, he came back to warn the village that the Viet Cong would be coming soon and they had to flee. They went into the jungle to hide, but some days later they were discovered. She remembers being inundated by sights and sound of guns firing, people screaming, blood and bodies all around. She remembers a gun pointed at her, and her father covering her to take the bullet and protect her. He died, and she stayed cowering under his body hidden from view. She has stark images still of what she saw during that time—children being swung around and thrown against the wall, men and women being executed point-blank.
Finally, the soldiers left and she was alone for a few terrible hours. Then her mother, who had run away, came back to look for her and discovered her beneath her dead husband. They went to search for a brother who had also escaped and, reunited, they walked through the jungle until they found refuge in a village. After a few months there, they relocated to another village where some relatives lived.
Although they were welcome, life was very constrained. Zoua remembers playing with other children, but being always afraid and never leaving the small encampment. A little farming was done, but food was very scarce. They would eat whatever they could: bark and leaves from trees, plant roots, insects. They were always hungry, and all the babies died from malnutrition. Then the Communists came and made them work for them carrying heavy bags of rice or at other menial labor.
Zoua’s family heard through the grapevine that one of her brothers had made his way to Thailand; and after her mother died, he came to rescue her. They walked a long way, maybe a week, through the jungle and over mountains. She remembers being shot at several times, having to stop and lay low. Some of the group were killed. Finally, they reached the Mekong River, where they were able to rent a boat to cross to Thailand.
After one night on the road, they reached a refugee camp. It was run almost like a prison, surrounded by barbed wire with their movements limited. They were given rice to eat, but no meat. Schooling was available, but in order to get money to buy household necessities, Zoua sewed and embroidered items to sell.
She was now fourteen. She and her brother’s family moved to another camp, and then another, They lived as a household, and in order not to encumber her brother, she agreed to marriage to a man she had no feelings for but who had a family connection in the U.S. By the time they got permission to emigrate, she had three children.
She remembers being terrified by the airplane ride and entry to a totally strange world. They came first to Stockton to live, where the sister-in-law sponsored them and sheltered them for two months before they got their own housing. Her sister-in-law also mentored her in the ways of the new culture: how to shop, use household appliances, handle money. Zoua says, “After our lives as refugees, I thought I was in heaven.” But her marriage was bad, and living on welfare was very difficult. There was little pleasure in her life except for the children.
Now separated from her husband, she lives in Fresno with her 21-year-old daughter. She says she cries every day remembering all she has endured and has frequent flashbacks to scenes during the war. She has two brothers still living in Laos who invite her to come. But, she says, “If I went I couldn’t stand the pain. I think I’d kill myself.” She carries bitterness toward the Americans who brought the war to the Hmong and the communists who killed her father. Of the latter, she says, “If I saw them, I’d shoot them.”
Zoua says she has not been able to work or do anything to take pride in. “If it weren’t for the happiness my grandchildren bring, I would not want to live.” She dedicates her life to honoring the father who protected her.
Zoua speaks little English, and her contact with American society is limited. But she wants her story, of a life torn apart by the American war, to be known and understood.
Thao Vang, 55, is of middle height and sturdy build. His face and hands are ever-busy and expressive—most sentences are illustrated with the use of eyes and mouth and emphatic gestures. He carries himself with confidence and there is a touch of the comic, his eyes merry and his words full of humor and acceptance of life’s vagaries.
Thao says that, before the war, his family lived in Long Chen, more a town than a village, with a population of a few thousand. There were schools, stores, office buildings of several stories, a large airport. His parents were farmers, and Thao grew up in a family of seven brothers and a sister. His father had had a second wife (though she died before Thao knew her) and there were five older step-siblings not living at home. The family “rose with the rooster” each day, and Thao had animal-tending chores in addition to going to school where he learned Laotian, French, and some math. The recently-invented Hmong alphabet was not taught, but he learned it from friends and at his church from the helpful French priests.
Thao remembers also having time for games, especially soccer and volleyball. They also played badminton with improvised net and birdies made with real feathers, and they made “paper cup telephones” on a line. There were radios in town, with programs in Laotian.
The town was not touched directly by the war while he was there, but rumors were rampant. Thao says he had no aspiration for leaving town before the war (“I could daydream about becoming a teacher or office worker rather than a farmer, but never to go away.”) But as signs of the war came closer and refugees began trickling into town, the family decided it had to leave. As the oldest, he was given to the care of a French orphanage and taken away. This was 1965, he was eleven. At that point, he lost contact with his family for several years.
His family had had no liking for the Communist ideology of collectivization and authoritarian rule, so at the time there was some sympathy for the American defense efforts. In retrospect, though, Thao thinks the Americans brought Laos needlessly into the war. He adds, however, “I never think much about the politics. I do what I can in the situation I find myself.”
Thao was too young to participate in the fighting, but when the Americans abruptly left Laos and allowed the Pathet Lao Communists to fill the governance vacuum, the funding for the orphanage dried up and it closed. With no known relatives nearby, Thao was left to live on the streets. Fortunately, a family took him in, changing his name to theirs—which late resulted in his family not being able to locate him for several years.
Again rumors spread that the Communists were coming. Thao and his new father set out on foot toward Thailand, but they were caught and sentenced to a year-and-a-half in prison. This period was the worst part of Thao’s war experience. “There were several of us in a cell, with little room to move around. They kept us locked up except for brief times when we were allowed out to wash. We were given little more than rice to eat, just enough to keep us from starving. The hardest part was passing the time. I tried to sleep as much as possible, and I learned to avoid thinking—thinking was dangerous. Those who couldn’t adjust to this reality, who fell into anger or frustration or depression, would become agitated. They were taken out and executed. The rest of us could watch and try not to fall into one of those states of mind.”
When the sentence was completed, Thao and some friends found a group of refugees preparing to escape into Thailand. They were already in a part of Laos across the river, so they had only to get to the border through the jungle. A guide who knew the way came from Thailand to lead them and took them to a refugee camp. “We felt relieved, but conditions were primitive. We had to collect materials from the surrounding area to build a shelter. I was then in my early 20’s, and living the single life with my friends. We could do some volunteer work like helping with the food, study a little Thai or English or math, and play sports with makeshift equipment. Afternoons and evenings we would socialize and date. We were fed decently, but it was an unstable life—I moved to nine different camps. There was no sense of being able to build a life.”
In 1983, through a series of coincidental meetings, Thao was reunited with members of his birth family. He was also able to bring to Thailand an arranged-marriage wife he had been contracted to when very young, though they had never lived together.
In the meantime, the U.S. had agreed to accept a limited number of Laotian refugees into the country, chosen by lottery. Thao and his wife were selected and were flown to Fresno where they had relatives. Thao had been in small planes in his hometown, but his wife was very scared of the flying. “Me,” Thao says, “I was mainly hungry.”
He says he was able to adapt pretty easily to life in the U.S. (“I’m not easily surprised, can take things as they come.”) He says he missed some aspect of Laotian life, especially the food, but was happy to discover an array of unknown fruits and vegetables.
Having had a head-start in learning English, Thao was able to attend Adult School and then find work. He has been relatively happy here, raising a family of nine children, but he now has health problems that prevent him from working and pose financial problems. He has a half-brother in Laos and would like to visit but (with a shrug), “No money, no trip.” He says he has limited involvement with U.S. culture, living mostly in a Hmong enclave, “but I did see Terminator—bang.”
Richard Stone is on the boards of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence and Community Alliance and author of the book Hidden in Plain Sight. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.