‘If they would see you, you would die’: Many Hmong Resettled in Madison After Fleeing Laos

Jacki Thomas

The Northside News

When U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam and the Lao kingdom was overthrown by communists in 1975, more than 100,000 Hmong were killed while trying to flee the country on foot.

When Hmong refugees were first resettled that year, they were spread across the United States, but eventually reconstituted in three primary states: California, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

According to Madison Area Technical College data, the Hmong in Madison eventually concentrated in the Bayview area and along the Northport Drive areas.

Some Americans are already familiar with the events that led the Hmong to the United States: recruited in 1960 by the CIA to fight against Vietnamese communists, the Hmong were paid about 10 cents per day and promised the protection of the U.S. government, which disappeared with the withdrawal of American troops.

With U.S. normalization of trade with Laos in 2005, one would think the war years over. But why do the Hmong continue to come?

“Thirty years, it doesn’t make sense,” said Rebecca Sommer. “It’s absolutely not understandable that a government for 32 - 33 years is hunting people.”

Sommer, a German filmmaker and human rights activist, recently screened a rough cut of her film, Hunted Like Animals at UW-Madison. Video cameras, along with solar-powered radios and phones supplied by Hmong in the United States were smuggled in 2003 to Hmong still hiding in the jungles of Laos. This footage, along with interviews from refugee camps in Thailand show that, for the Hmong, the war is far from over.

“They are farmers, not hunter-gatherers,” said Sommer. “So they really started to get this major suffering. So many would go back into their villages. Again, sometimes a month, sometimes three years later, they would get ambushed again, until this happened two, three times and then they all agreed to go permanently into hiding. Lots of starvation, constantly on the move; little makeshift houses, once the leaves get yellow they are on the move again. Fired upon from the air… women and children living underground in caves.”

“When in the jungle, it’s really hard to make a decision whether to come down or not – my parents were killed right in front of me, so you go to hide just to save your life,” said Khue Xiong, President of the Lao Human Rights Council.

Progress, by western standards, has only led to more persecution of those Hmong who retreated to the mountains after the U.S. withdrawal. According to Sommer, “Remote areas are being developed, more and more base camps are built, the Hmong-in-hiding are shot from the air with grenades and chemical weapons. Since 2001 there are many reports from different groups in hiding that the military groups have become more intense.”

Tzeng Lor, who left Laos in November of 2004, witnessed this development. “They bulldozed through the jungle creating roads. On February 8, 2003, they came towards the area where our group of 205 families lived. They had already established military base camps. In addition, they brought airplanes that sprayed chemicals where we lived. Many of our group were killed, our plants destroyed.”

A woman identified as the wife of Zong Her tells of Vietnamese and Laotian soldiers forcing members of her remote village to slaughter their animals and serve them to the soldiers. After the meal, the soldiers massacred nine Hmong; the rest fled to the jungle. Later, soldiers sent messages telling those in hiding to return to their village.

“We were back in our village only for five days when soldiers suddenly surrounded us. They attacked us again, unprovoked, and this time they killed my mother. Since then, we are chased, hunted and under constant attacks. We had no clothes. When we met other groups-in-hiding, we women were so ashamed to be nearly naked. We starved from hunger; our hair got thin and weak. We ate anything edible, anything we could find, just to keep us alive. We came to Thailand, hoping that leaders will be willing to save our lives.”

These stories are familiar to Chua Lee, 27, who now lives in Madison, having left the Wat Tham Krabok camp in December 2004. “If they would see you, you would die. All the years I was in the camp, still more Hmong came and their stories were the same.”

Thailand will no longer recognize the refugee status of Hmong who cross the Mekong River into Thailand, treating them instead as illegal aliens. Sommer and other human rights activists held a press conference in Bangkok in August 2006, reporting that recent refugees, primarily women and children imprisoned in Phetchabun province, have not been given access to clean water or adequate food and have been housed in darkness, some since January 2006.

Although United Nations representatives were not allowed to visit the refugee camps, they have now heard the stories. Sommer presented a 92-page report of her findings and copies of her film to the United Nations Permanent Committee on Indigenous Peoples on May 19. The report and much of her film may be found at www.rebeccasommer.org.

Sommer warns that the time is critical for the Hmong in Laos and Thailand. “It’s not enough to just bring the voice once to the UN and think that mama and papa UN will do something, because mama and papa UN is basically government and they don’t really want to do anything when it doesn’t benefit a big…you know.”

Lue Lee, a fifth grader at Lindbergh Elementary, who came to the United States in 2005, believes that one voice, even when small, can become a bigger voice. Recently selected by his school to attend the National Safety Patrol Conference in Washington, D.C., Lee saw one lone protestor outside the capital building, holding a poster of a Hmong child in hiding in Laos, being carried in a net, with his intestines cradled beside him.

“I saw one person there, in front of the capital," Lee said. "And that picture, I saw that picture. When we walked by we talked about it, like thirty people, I think. Maybe now they are talking about it in the different states they came from, then won’t the whole United States finally know?”

This article original appeared in the June/July 2007 edition of Northside News.