A Blackbird's Song

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Va Char is not a Hmong, but a Lao trader who for years made a comfortable living selling supplies to remote mountain communities around Phonsavanh. "He was very well liked and respected," says a villager in the district. "He always helped people out if he could." In 1993, says Va Char, a Hmong business contact told him about a remote community in the jungle that needed supplies. "I had never been political until I went to the jungle," he says. "I went there carrying salt and shoes, expecting to find a normal mountain village. Instead I was faced with thousands of people, screaming from hunger, telling me stories of persecution and asking for my help. I had heard rumors of these people, but I'd never believed it. I couldn't believe this was happening in my country."

Va Char says he returned to his village determined to help. For the next four years he recruited family and friends into a network that occasionally ferried supplies to the Hmong. In 1997, he was arrested and jailed for two years. "I was so angry," he said. "I was helping people who were suffering, who were not bad. Children were dying. It was not right." Released in 1999, he made contact with the Fact Finding Commission, a Hmong human-rights group in the U.S., which was trying to make contact with the Hmong trapped in the mountains. They supplied Va Char with a video camera to record what he saw.

After his escape in 2003, Va Char moved from house to house, sleeping occasionally in rice fields. But the net was closing around his family, and the Blackbird network had been compromised. Va Char says he was faced with a grim choice: to try to sneak out of Laos undetected or join those on the run in the jungle. He decided to return to the Hmong with his video camera. "I knew if I left the country, or was killed, no one would hear from the Hmong again," he said.

Va Char says that the children he filmed in the summer of 2003 all soon died. It took another 10 months, he says, to smuggle more batteries into the jungle, during which the community was constantly on the move. In late April 2004, he says, he started filming again. On May 19, he told TIME, the band was scattered along the banks of a creek, at the bottom of deep gully inside the mountainous Xaysomboune Special Zone. The group numbered almost 200—roughly 30 families—and had been camped for two days. In the past six months, says Va Char, the group, together with some 2,000 others camped nearby, had relocated many times to stay one step ahead of the Lao patrols that often swept through the jungle.

Ka Ying Yang, 20, was one of the band. In an interview this summer, he told TIME that on May 19 his girlfriend, Mao Lee, 14, ignored warnings from the camp's armed guards that there might be Lao patrols in the neighborhood and went looking for cassava root along a mountain path. Mao's elder sister Chao, 16, went along, says Va Char, with a group of 12 young men and women. They set off up the mountain path. None of them carried weapons. Behind them, says Va Char, four or five other groups, perhaps 40 people in all, followed. Va Char was among them. "None of us was thinking about Lao patrols," he said. "We were all just hungry. I hadn't eaten for two days."

Va Char says that he walked about 50 meters behind Mao's lead group. About 30 minutes after leaving the camp, he says, he heard a gunshot. Soon came a fusillade of fire that he estimates lasted two minutes. Va Char says he leapt off the path and dived to the ground. He says he could hear the terrified screams of the young girls and persistent gunfire. Although grass and trees partially obscured his view of the scene, Va Char says he could make out what he estimates were 30 to 40 Lao soldiers standing in a loose circle and could hear them saying excitedly "Girls! Girls!" Then, he says, he heard a voice say, "Mother, please help us." Va Char says that for the next hour he heard the soldiers laughing and the girls pleading for mercy. Eventually, he says, he heard single gunshots. After the soldiers left, he and others fled back down the path to the camp, where Va Char grabbed his camera and began filming.

The first shot in the sequence is of a helicopter far in the distance, though it is impossible to tell if it is of a commercial or military type. The film then shows a young man, his clothes soaked in blood, with what appear to be bullet wounds in his legs and arms. Another young man and a woman, also seemingly with bullet wounds, are also filmed. "I lost my flip-flop when I was running," the woman says. "I bent down to pick it up, and the bullet went through my basket and hit me." Va Char then films Mao and Chao Lee's mother, weeping. At the site of the alleged ambush, a girl is seen, dead in the bushes, her intestines spilling out through her dress. Forensic pathologist Dr. Nizam Peerwani, Chief Medical Officer of Tarrant County, Texas, and a veteran of U.N. missions to Rwanda and Bosnia, has seen the tape and thinks the girl was disembowelled. Close by is the body of a girl that Va Char says is Chao, with insects buzzing around a mouth wound. Va Char claims she was stabbed. Also in the circle is a dead boy. A man, said by Va Char to be the boy's father, lifts the boy's black shirt to reveal what Dr. Peerwani describes as "multiple stab and exit gunshot wounds." The film then shifts to the body of Mao, with a man and a woman—said to be Mao's brother and mother—kneeling close by. The woman lifts the shirt to show what appear to be two small bullet holes in the girl's small breasts. Va Char says she had been raped.

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