Authors: Elaine Russell
Pao wanted to go to Muang Cha that afternoon. I left the children with Auntie Nhia and walked with Pao
on the well-worn path to town. I studied the smallest details of the forest--the ferns and climbing vines, and sweet-scented orchids. Starlings and jays with bright blue feathers sang to us in the branches. Big black beetles and yellow centipedes scurried through the dirt and under the humus of leaves and pine needles. The ebony trees dripped purple and white flowers that sometimes floated onto our path. So much beauty to leave behind.
The sun had passed over the middle of the sky by the time we left the fores
t and crossed the wide valley. We passed a field of newly sprouted corn, but not a single farmer was in sight. The heat was great. Dust rose from the ground with the slightest movement, filling my nose and coating my hair. Wispy clouds wavered across the sky with the unfulfilled promise of rain. At the edge of town a strange quiet blanketed the afternoon. The road, usually filled with children and villagers, remained empty. We came upon an abandoned suitcase, half-full with clothes. Farther on two blankets. A photograph of a young couple. Three spoons. A tin plate. All scattered along the roadside. Rows of wooden houses sat deserted. Gardens were picked bare and chicken cages left open. A loose pig wandered into a yard. A rooster crowed somewhere in the trees up the hill.
It was a ghost village. Everyone had run away. I wanted to run as well. If only we had.
But at that moment, a young Vietnamese soldier emerged from behind a hibiscus tree. He called out for us to stop.
,” he said, referring to Pao as little brother. He had a narrow, bird-like face. A rifle hung off his shoulder. “Do you live in Muang Cha?” He spoke in Lao with a heavy accent I could barely understand.
“We walked from our village. Over there.”
Pao pointed in the opposite direction from our home. “We are going to the market.”
The soldier nodd
ed. “You can join your comrades for a talk. I will walk with you.”
“This is very interesting, I’m sure,” Pao said. “But we
must get home to our children. It is a half-day walk.”
The muscles ar
ound the soldier’s eyes tensed. “No worry. You can stay a few hours and then return. Tomorrow bring the others from your village with you. Everyone must turn in their guns. We are all brothers now. No need to fight any more.”
I thought at that moment we had no hope.
The man led us down the deserted, dusty road into the town center. Maybe fifty people filled the main square and spilled into the side roads. Everyone was Hmong except for the three Chinese couples who owned stalls in the market. I recognized families we had known in Long Chieng and then Muang Cha. My cousin Bla and her husband squatted on the ground a short distance from us. The crowd remained silent. In every direction Pathet Lao and Vietnamese soldiers stood alert with their guns. Fear floated over the hot, stagnant air.
A Hmong Pathet Lao soldier stepped up on a platform fashioned from wood crates turned upside down.
His uniform showed no sign of rank. He was a short, skinny man with weathered skin the color of betel nuts, a farmer turned communist leader. He stood before a microphone and stuck his lower lip out as if thinking carefully of what to say.
“Comrades,” he yelled into the microphone, setting off
a screech that pierced my ears. “We are here to celebrate the great national democratic revolution, a new era of equality, peace, and freedom. You have been liberated from the yoke of American neocolonialism. The capitalist exploiters tried to steal the gold and silver off your backs, the poor workers. They are devils, I tell you, devils!” He took a deep breath. “Those who followed Vang Pao and the American blood-suckers were wrong. How could you be so stupid?” His voice vibrated over the loud speaker. Sweat dripped from his face and stained his shirt under the arms and down the front. The speech went on this way for more than an hour, denouncing the Americans and their puppets the Royal Lao ministers.
Pao did not move
. His face was slack, without emotion. The woman next to me listened with wide eyes as she bit her lower lip. Her husband dug the dirt from beneath his nails, never looking up. Another man lit a cigarette and stared at the ground, his neck muscles twitching, his face growing red. We shared the humiliation of the speaker’s angry harangue. A Mynah bird landed on the roof nearby and cocked its head to one side, watching with a wary yellow eye.
A second man, this one Lao, delivered a speech as the first s
peaker translated into Hmong. He hurled denouncements of the Americans and those who fought with them. He repeated the words over and over. The late afternoon heat and stale air of so many people crowded together made me faint. My legs had cramped and my bottom hurt from sitting on the hard ground. I longed for a drink of water.
Finally, a Vietnamese
soldier rose to the platform. The Hmong man translated his halting Lao words. “In our great new socialist society everyone will work together, sharing the land and the fruits of our labor. You can be part of this. But first you must give up your weapons and confess your mistakes, renounce the wrong ways of the past. Self-criticism is the path to forgiveness and freedom.” The man paused and slowly scanned the faces before him. “Who among you is ready to renounce your wrong doing and make a new start? Step up now.”
A great silence followed.
People stared at the ground or eyed the soldiers surrounding us. A man to Pao’s right took a deep breath and stood up. Then two other men rose and three more and another two until eight men stepped forward. They bowed their heads and offered apologies in soft, quivering voices. The speaker praised them for making the right choice. Four soldiers stepped forward and led the men away.
“There is nothing to fear. Are there not mo
re of you?” the soldier asked. Somewhere in the crowd a man gave a sharp laugh, but no one answered. The speaker waited a very long time, the silence more terrifying than his words. He focused his gaze on several men near the front as if weighing their guilt. They shifted positions as one wiped the sweat from his hands onto his pants. One Hmong soldier studied Pao’s face.
At last the speaker smiled.
“Think about what you have heard today and make a fresh start.” His voice was like cold metal, gliding over skin.
After close to three hours, the speeche
s ended, and we stood to leave. I was stiff and shaky. The Vietnamese soldier who had brought us to the meeting appeared again. My breath caught in my throat. He reminded Pao to bring the others from our village the next day.
As we headed toward the edge of
town, Pao saw his friend Chai. He walked with us and whispered hurriedly to Pao. The soldiers had arrived in Muang Chai the week before he said. Many fled that day. Only the night before in the early hours, soldiers had dragged away five men who had been in the Special Forces. Two school teachers, a nurse, and three shop owners had disappeared as well. The Pathet Lao said they had been sent to special seminar camps to learn new ways. One man had been found in the woods near town, a bullet through his head.
As we climbed the path into the forest, I kept looking back, expecting to
find soldiers coming after us. A few times I thought I heard footsteps or the snap of a twig. We hardly spoke on the long walk home. I tried to fill my mind with the tasks I must complete, the last minute packing. Morning could not come quickly enough.
It turned dark before we reached the village, but a full moon peeked through
scattered clouds to guide us. Pao went immediately to tell the others what had happened in Muang Cha. We must be out of the village as early as possible.
I took a flashlight to the small garden behind t
he house and picked long beans and yams for the journey. Tears filled my eyes as I pulled a few stray weeds from around a hearty red pepper plant. I turned the dirt in my hands, mourning my garden and our fields. The fruits of my labor that I would abandon. Like orphaned children.
er Pao nor I slept that night. We lay in each other’s arms, a string of fear binding us together. Before the first rooster’s crow I built up the fire and put on a pot of water. I made chicken soup and rice for breakfast. The children wakened as if sensing our alarm. Pao took the boys to look for eggs in the hen cage that we could boil and pack with the leftover rice for a meal later in the day.
I went outside to take a few ears of corn from the bamboo bin near the house where
we stored them. Nou toddled behind me. Dawn turned the sky a pale blue gray. A rustling sound emerged through the trees and caught my ear. Before I could call out, a dozen Pathet Lao soldiers, like evil spirits, descended on the village. I grabbed Nou and turned to find Pao, standing perfectly still. The boys were behind him. My body shook so badly I could hardly hold onto Nou. She began to cry as Uncle Boua and other family members gathered around.
Hmong soldier who had made the speech the day before scanned the half dozen families gathered around and smiled. “Comrades, we are here to ask a few questions of former soldiers and to collect your guns. We know you fought against the revolution. You must make amends and learn to reform your thoughts.”
Uncle Boua steppe
d forward. “You are mistaken. We are only farmers.”
The soldier scowled and pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. “Where is Ly Pao?”
No one moved. How was it possible they knew my husband’s name? They could not take him from me. Not now. The soldier’s eyes flashed. Nou pulled on my hair and screeched. Then I saw the red nail marks where I had squeezed her tiny arm.
“And what about Ly Tong and Ly
Boua?” the soldier continued. Silence. The soldier slowly strolled over to Pao and stared into his eyes, then turned to Fong. “And what is your father’s name?” he asked.
“I won’t tell you,” Fong said, his voice strong and clear.
The soldier grabbed Fong’s arm. “We’ll see about that.”
Pao raised his hands up.
“Stop! Leave the boy alone. I am Ly Pao.” A small cry escaped from my lips.
Tong, Uncle Boua
, and the other men stepped forward to protect their families. The soldiers searched our houses and tore apart the baskets we had packed for the trip. They lined up Pao and the other men and tied their hands together with a rope. They led them away down the path in the pale morning light. Pao vanished around a corner and into the trees like the evening sun disappearing over the mountain.
The spirits of the Mekong River raged that night, angered by the violent assault of mortars and gunfire and blood that sullied its waters and disrupted the natural balance of its flow. Awakened, it raged with all its power and might at the evil of men, punishing unlucky souls, and swallowing them whole.
I had no time to
think. Everything happened too fast. I could only grasp my wife and child as we hurtled downriver. The water roared in my ears and flooded over my face until I was gasping for air. I don’t know how much time passed until an eddy, created by a dead trunk that rose up out of the bottom, sent us reeling toward the Thai shore. The waters slowed as we grew closer. I grabbed a branch and pulled with all my remaining strength. By some grace two men appeared in the shallows to help us. One held the raft steady as I handed Nou to the other. Yer and I struggled onto the shore, and the current carried the raft into the night. We collapsed on the ground shivering violently, as the skies thundered and rain poured down.
I was too stunned at first to understand everything that had happened.
The faint crackle of gunfire echoed in the distance, and I threw myself around Nou. But the men said the bullets could not reach us. The river was too wide. Still, I clung to Nou not believing them.
The men left to help others emerging from the water or stumbling down the rocky shore like
drunks who had lost their way. I settled Nou next to her mother and rose to search for my boys. My arms and legs felt heavy, and my hands tingled as a vine of fear coiled in my middle and wrapped around my heart. Time stood still, as if I were detached from this earth. I told myself over and over the boys would appear. They had to be safe. But only Uncle Boua, my nephew Gia, and Yang Chor and his three sons gathered around me.
Uncle Boua hung his head and began to we
ep. He cried out that his boy Blong and daughter Lia had fallen into the water and disappeared. Tears rolled down his face as I looked on helplessly, unable to speak.
I could not catch my breath as images of our last moments filled my mind— climbing on the rafts, the crushing weight of a searchlight bearing down, Fue’s scream
and fall, Fong grabbing wildly. Then darkness. Only the roar of the river and bullets flying past. We were swept away. I wanted to reach out for them, but I couldn’t.
Yer stared at her clothes as if surprised to find them wet.
Then her head snapped up. She scanned the gray expanse and jumped to her feet. Her voice grew plaintive calling out for her sons.
paralyzing pain seized my middle until I thought I might be sick. The truth was clear to me, but only lies escaped my lips. I touched her shoulder. “They’ll be here soon.”
g around and lashed at my arm. “You have to find them. Go back. Quickly.” She began to sob.
Moua Yang staggered along the water’s edge, clutching her young son and wailing for h
er husband and older daughter. Nou clung to my leg and buried her head as if to make the sound go away. The river’s powerful flow echoed around us.
I had only
wanted to keep my family safe. But I failed them. I should have realized it was too dangerous to cross the river. We should have stayed in the mountains until the monsoons passed and the river calmed. I should have found a crossing where no soldiers were lying in wait. I had put my sons in the line of fire. It was my fault. My boys were lost to the river.
said they were from the nearby village and pointed toward flickering lights on the knoll a half kilometer away. They had come down to the river when the shooting started. Almost every night families like ours washed up on the shores. They offered to guide us to their homes for the night and help us find the way to a refugee camp in the morning.
But Yer resisted.
She splashed into the river up to her knees, still searching. I lifted Nou into my arms as I gathered my strength. I wanted to cry out as well, cry to the heavens to spare us this fate. But I had to be strong. Yer’s skirt rippled and filled with water, nearly pulling her under. I tugged at her arm and forced her back, handing her Nou. “You must go with these men. Nou is so cold. I’ll find...” My voice cracked, a lump in my throat making it impossible to continue.
Uncle Boua came to my side, wiping his eyes on hi
s sleeve. “I’ll go with you.” Confusion followed as others tried to decide whether to stay or go with the Thai men. At last only four of us remained. Yang Chor and Yee agreed to search the shore to the north while Uncle Boua and I headed south. The night passed as a dream. We stumbled over small loose rocks along the flat shore, plodding on and on. At a curve in the river the rocks gave way to a steep muddy bank. We slipped and slid, grasping at tall reeds to keep from falling. Then the bank widened and became flat again. The rain had turned to a soft drizzle, and the clouds began to break. I kept an eye on the shore across the water, still uncertain of the danger of soldiers on patrol. Frogs croaked in the thick grasses that grew to the edges of the rice paddies. The soft
of an owl floated from a fig palm. A momentary hope filled my heart that it might be a sign; just a little farther, the boys were waiting for me. Sometimes we called out our children’s names, but mostly we remained quiet. I scanned the shadows as clouds raced back and forth over the moon. My eyes played tricks, seeing movement, perhaps the shape of a person lying in the mud and rocks. But there was nothing. The river churned past, sweeping away broken tree branches, layers of soil washed from the hills by the monsoons, engulfing everything.
After a long time we stopped to rest,
crouching down on our haunches. We would head back. There was no point in continuing. Somewhere far downstream, tomorrow or the next day, our children’s bodies might be snagged by a branch or wash up on the shore, found by a fisherman or farmer or woman washing her laundry. But we would never see them again.
Dawn spread over the tree tops across the river in Laos, turning t
he sky blue-gray then magenta. Clouds broke apart and sent orange streaks, the color of overripe papaya, bouncing off the rushing waters and uncovering the shadows. Pale pink lotus buds swayed at the edge of the shore, slowly opening their petals to the day. The air held no sounds of gunfire or shells, only the trills of the black and yellow birds on the branches of a frangipani tree. I let out a low moan, struck by the incongruity of this beauty. My cherished boys. I allowed my tears to fall at last and prayed for their souls to find a way home to our village, the place my heart would always remain.
We had trouble
finding our way back to the village, but a fisherman casting his net from the shore pointed to a small hill not far away. The families who helped us lived in wooden houses perched on tall poles. I found Yer sitting on the floor, clutching her knees to her chest, rocking and weeping. She looked at me and then turned away, and I could not bear to think of how I had disappointed her. Nou was kneeling next to a large pot of rice and greens, eating from a bowl. She turned her enormous eyes on me. I did not speak. I had nothing to tell. Instead I took the food offered by the Thai wife and ate greedily.
I slept awhile.
When I woke mid-morning, one of the villagers’ sons appeared with a Thai policeman. He was a large, bulky man with hair that stuck straight out from his head. In our torn, muddy clothes, our group of fourteen trudged behind the policeman for forty-five minutes to his small office in the town of Nong Khai. Beneath the gray, turbulent skies, I tried to grasp our losses. Yer stared at the ground, her expression dazed. When I touched her shoulder she jumped and stepped away from me.
The policeman asked questions about our escape and scr
ibbled notes on a pad of paper. At last he made a phone call. We waited in the cramped room, sitting on the benches and floor. Outside the rain had begun again, a steady drumming on the tin roof. Yer and Yang Moua sat together, clutching one another’s hands. Nou climbed onto my lap and after several minutes whispered in my ear, asking for Fue and Fong. My throat constricted. Finally, carefully, my voice as soft as possible, I told her they had gone to heaven to be with our ancestors. Her little brow drew into a tight furrow over the bridge of her nose. When would they be back she persisted. And I had to tell her the terrible truth. Never. She blinked several times and began to whimper, then left me to curl up in her mother’s arms.
white and green bus arrived to take us to the camp twenty kilometers away named after the town. Thirty-five other Hmong who had crossed the river the previous night sat in the bus, staring at us with blank expressions as we climbed on board. They fidgeted and turned to look out the windows as if they could not bear to see their own despair reflected in our faces. Uncle Boua recognized an older man he had met during the war, but they exchanged only a few words. We rode for thirty minutes in silence along the rutted, muddy road, bouncing over the potholes, past Thai farmers working in rice paddies.
A barbed wire f
ence surrounded Nong Khai Camp. Three Thai soldiers stood sentry at the gate, brandishing their rifles. As we drove into the compound, I did not know if I should feel afraid. Officials would explain the guards were for our protection so no one from outside could take advantage of us. Through the barbed wire, I watched the Thai farmer we had just passed driving his water buffalo into his field. He never looked our way, as if we did not exist.
A makeshift town of long, bamboo sheds stret
ched across the rolling hills. In an office on the center square a Thai official took our statements and asked a string of questions. He filled out forms, assigned camp numbers, gave us ration cards, and designated a space in one of the barracks. We would live with Uncle Boua and my cousin Gia. We made our way across the square, slick with rain and mud, past a Buddhist temple, a hospital, a soccer field of patchy grass, and bamboo huts where vendors sold vegetables and basic supplies. Up the narrow, crowded paths hundreds of refugees spilled out of their rooms. We slogged along the slippery path and past the lower barracks assigned to the lowland Lao families, who had arrived first and made up the majority of refugees, and up the hill to the Hmong section at the back of the camp.
At last we found our room in a building, which like al
l the others, housed close to sixty families. Bamboo walls ran across the back and the far ends of the barrack. The front was open. Thick bamboo poles supported the thatched roof. Young and old, grandmothers, aunties, uncles, parents, brothers, and cousins clustered together in the tiny spaces that ran one into the other, divided only by blankets hanging from a rope or flimsy bamboo mats. Yer turned in slow circles, taking in the woven sleeping mat at the back of the room that was raised off the floor. Two stools and two plastic buckets had been left next to the fire pit at the front of the room. Everything smelled of sewage and sickness and mold.
Our neighbors gathered
around, asking for news from Laos. A young woman holding a new baby told Yer where to find the trucks that came once a week to deliver rations. She clicked her tongue several times. “All they give us is dirty rice and a little fish sauce. Sometimes a bit of rotten meat.”
Nou hid behind her mother’s skirts and listened, her eyes darting back and forth among the unfamiliar faces.
An older woman with dirty, matted hair, rocked back and forth as she rubbed her hands together over and over. Three times she recited the schedule for filling water buckets. “I’ll take you to the market for bowls and cooking pots. I know where they have the best prices. I know. I know.”
A stream of complaints followed from the other women
about overflowing outhouses, bad food, and rude, Thai merchants who charged too much money for their wares.
A tall man with a huge square jaw cornered me and Unc
le Boua. “The Thai guards cannot be trusted. They steal from us and try to get bribes if you want to go out of the camp to work.” He turned away from Yer and lifted his shirt to display two deep scars, still red and raw, which ran down his chest. “Two weeks ago,” he whispered, “I had to fight a soldier. He was raping a fourteen-year-old girl from the next building.” He spat on the ground and shook his head. “Don’t turn your back.”
see the distress on Yer’s face, clutching her middle as she slowly backed away from the chattering women. Finally, the neighbors went back to their places. Yer began to unpack the small bundle of tattered, damp clothes and a single blanket that she had carried across the river on our raft strapped on her back. After a moment, she stopped, paralyzed, clutching a shirt that had belonged to Fue. She collapsed on the ground sobbing. Nou threw her arms around her mother and cooed soothing words into her ears. I had to walk away.