A Blackbird's Song

  • Share
  • Read Later
On July 28, a traveling salesman from Laos left Bangkok for asylum in the U.S. Va Char Yang, 38, now lives in Oroville, California, with his wife, Mai Vang, and three small children. A year earlier, in Laos, he had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for crimes including possession of illegal explosives and drugs. At the time, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that the trial fell "well short of international standards of jurisprudence." Va Char had been arrested while escorting two European journalists and their American Hmong translator out of the jungle in Xaysomboune Special Zone, a military region closed to outsiders. The team had been investigating reports of alleged atrocities committed by Lao security forces on small armed bands of the ethnic-minority Hmong, reports that the Lao authorities have consistently denied. Va Char, who had acted as the journalists' guide (a role he had also performed for TIME in January 2003) is a member of a small underground network inside Laos known as the Blackbirds. Supported by Lao communities living in the U.S., the Blackbirds have provided food and clothing to a few thousand descendants of a militia, mainly made up of Hmong, that once helped the U.S. fight the communists during the Vietnam War.

Va Char was not present to hear his sentence. Two days after he had been captured in June 2003, he says, he escaped from the toilet of a police guardhouse. Over the next year, he was the subject of a manhunt, with a reward of $15,000 on his head—this in a nation where the average person makes $2 a day. "People were walking around with guns for weeks hoping to try and kill him," says a rice farmer living in a village close to Phonsavanh, Va Char's hometown. But Va Char managed to elude those seeking him. According to his account, confirmed by six Blackbirds spoken to by TIME who helped him escape, he eventually journeyed through Laos on the back of a motorbike, disguised as an old man until he reached the Thai border, from where he headed for Bangkok and, eventually, California.

Va Char carried with him a videotape, which TIME has seen. The tape, which shows the life of a small band of Hmong, is deeply disturbing. The first footage—dated June 19, 2003—shows images of an emaciated baby. A girl cradles him in her arms, trying to feed him cassava roots crushed into a paste. Another child lies limp on the floor, her belly bloated from hunger. Their mother, unable to produce breast milk, was, says Va Char, out in the jungle searching for food. Outside the hut lies another child, too weak too pull himself out of the dirt.

But it is footage shot, according to Va Char and Ka Ying Yang, one of the Hmong band, on May 19, 2004, that is most dramatic. The film shows what Va Char says are the dead bodies of five young Hmong in the deep jungle. They are the victims, say Va Char and Ka Ying, of an ambush by Lao government troops on the Hmong—an ambush that Va Char says he watched while hiding in the jungle by the side of a path.

In an area of Laos cut off to outsiders and populated only by the military and the Hmong, it is impossible to verify the claims made by Va Char, Ka Ying and Hmong who claim on the tape that the Lao army was responsible for the deaths. Asked by TIME about Va Char's allegations, the Lao Foreign Ministry said: "According to the description of the tape, we think there is a lot of fabrication floating around. It could be a fabrication harming the good image of the Lao People's Democratic Republic by ill-intentioned groups." A Lao official who spoke to TIME on condition of anonymity said that Lao forces "never kill anybody" among the Hmong and described Va Char as a dangerous man and a criminal.

Now safely in the U.S., Va Char hopes to travel to Washington to screen the tape and give evidence before Congress. "The U.S. has an obligation to help these people," he said last week from California. "They are dying because their parents helped the U.S. in the war. It's not right." American pressure groups—some made up of Lao who resettled in the U.S. after the war, some including former U.S. CIA operatives who assisted the Hmong—are likely to use the tape as evidence that allies of the U.S. have been left behind in the jungles of Southeast Asia, victims of a regime that sees them as armed bandits. And so—in a summer marked by memories of veterans of the swift-boat campaigns in the Mekong Delta and protests by the Montagnards in Vietnam itself—the Vietnam War, that suppurating sore that never heals, will ooze one more trail of bile and despair.

Of all the victims of the war, few have had such a pitiful history as the Hmong. Recruited, armed and trained by the CIA to conduct a "secret war" in officially neutral Laos, the Hmong fought to contain Vietnamese troop movements along the Ho Chi Minh Trail through central Laos and to rescue downed American flyers involved in a covert bombing campaign. The Hmong campaign was not publicly acknowledged by the U.S. until 1994, when former CIA Director William Colby told Congress of the Hmong's "heroism and sacrifice." Shortly after the Pathet Lao regime took power in 1975—two years after the U.S. had left the country—tens of thousands of Hmong refugees began arriving in neighboring Thailand to escape persecution in Laos. Many were relocated to the U.S. In Laos itself, many Hmong have resettled outside the mountains, and the Lao official claims that the Hmong are overrepresented in the civil service, army and police force. But thousands more remain trapped deep inside the mountains, playing a deadly game of cat and mouse with the government.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3