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A Blackbird’s Song

12 minute read
Andrew Perrin

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.

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.

Ka Ying Yang says that he lingered briefly at the site where his girlfriend had died and then agreed to act as Va Char’s armed escort out of the mountains. In the final scene of the film, which Va Char says took place on June 13, the entire community is on the move. Ka Ying Yang, off camera, says goodbye to his sister. “I told her our parents were dead and we had no future,” he told TIME. “I said I was doing it so that she didn’t end up like Mao Lee.” Three days after leaving the camp, Va Char and Ka Ying reached the edge of the jungle and made contact with some Blackbirds. Then they separated. Va Char took his motorbike ride through the night to the border. Ka Ying made the same journey in a car with three Blackbirds. It was, he says, the first time he had moved without using his feet. He was sick all the way.

At her confirmation hearings in Washington last April, Patricia Haslach, the new U.S. ambassador to Laos, said: “First and foremost, I will continue to press the Lao government to respect the rights of its ethnic groups, especially the Hmong population that continues to reside in remote areas of the country.” The U.S. is concerned that incidents such as that alleged by Va Char may occur from time to time, not as a consequence of government policy but because Lao soldiers know there will be no censure for their actions. In a statement, the U.S. State Department said that it had no “independent information about the alleged atrocity” described by Va Char but that “such allegations are serious, and we of course will look into them and respond appropriately.” The statement went on to urge the Lao government to launch a “serious investigation of this alleged incident.” The Lao official to whom TIME spoke said that “of course an investigation will be launched if this tape [is] proved to be true.” Asked if foreign observers would be able to monitor such an investigation, he said that it would have to remain confidential.

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