By MAI DER VANG. MAY 27, 2015
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Credit Michel Laurent/Associated Press
On the morning of May 14, 1975, in a valley of limestone, sinkholes and caves, the end was drawing near. The discarded possessions of those who had fled were everywhere: suitcases, shoes, wrinkled blouses. This was Long Tieng, a secret military air base established by the Central Intelligence Agency from where it led clandestine operations in Laos during the Vietnam War.
That morning, just as in previous days, thousands of Hmong civilians swarmed the dirt-paved runway, hoping for a miraculous chance to shove their way into a cargo aircraft and evacuate in time. Some clung to the plane as the pilot attempted to taxi, only letting go after the engine roared. Meanwhile, over in the deserted C.I.A. compound, the radios had not even been turned off and machines were still running. Vietnam had already fallen to the Communists and Laos was next.
During the Vietnam War, negotiators in Geneva agreed that Laos would remain neutral. But because the United States feared the spread of communism, the C.I.A. directed a covert operation in Laos known as the Secret War. It recruited Vang Pao, a charismatic, widely respected general, along with tens of thousands of Hmong boys and men, as fighters. For a decade and a half, Gen. Vang Pao and his Hmong guerrillas fought alongside the Americans.
On that chaotic morning, the Secret War came to a jarring end. After a quick extraction followed by decades in exile, General Vang Pao, who died in 2011, never saw his homeland again. Many of his top officials had been evacuated in previous flights, but thousands of people were abandoned on that airstrip, and even more were left behind elsewhere in Laos. Long Tieng , once a stronghold symbolic of the American occupation, was now in ruins.
This month marks 40 years since the fall of Long Tieng and the start of the Hmong exodus from Laos. It marks the desertion of a people left to fend for themselves, with nothing to rebuild their lives. It marks the treachery of the United States government, which went into an unknown country, waged years of war, and then dropped everything in a moment’s notice. It marks a landscape devastated by conflict, with American warplanes dropping enough ordnance on Laos to equal a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years, according to Legacies of War, an organization that works to raise awareness about unexploded ordnance.
General Vang Pao’s flight from Laos prompted tens of thousands to flee. My parents fled with their families on foot, walking for days toward Thailand, plagued by starvation and disease. Not everyone survived. One of my father’s older aunts had been given a gun to carry. When the refugees came upon Communist troops, the soldiers immediately assumed she was a Hmong guerrilla because she was slinging a gun. They killed her on the spot and left her body along the roadside.
The U.S. government had not foreseen that refugees would flood Thailand seeking asylum. When they initially recruited the Hmong, they reportedly agreed to assist them if the war turned disastrous. This promise was fulfilled to General Vang Pao and his high-ranking officials, but not to the rest of the people. Only after years of squatting in camps, along with pressure from the Thai government, did the United States agree to resettle the Hmong.
As a Hmong American, I feel the tremors of war transferred across generations. I know now that while a person can be evacuated from his war-torn country, he can never be evacuated from the trauma. At times, I find my father seated alone in the living room, watching videos from the war, perhaps in an attempt to remember what could have been. My mother, conversely, cannot bear the noise of fireworks on the Fourth of July because they rekindle memories of mortar-bomb explosions.
Today, most Americans know nothing about the Secret War. A classified operation, C.I.A. officials easily terminated the effort when everything went awry. It was a disposable war, intended to look like it never happened. But the presence of the Hmong in the United States, now numbering over 260,000 people, with concentrations in California and Minnesota, is living evidence of its aftermath.
This war and its consequences are now embedded in my identity. I am a child of the diaspora, born the year my parents started a new life in America, symbolizing the years since they left Laos.
I’ve wondered: How does one memorialize a failed war that most people don’t even know about or would rather forget? How will my generation attempt to retain the memories of that war so that future generations will know? What happens when we completely adapt to American culture and lose the narrative of who we are? Even now, I ask more questions than I have answers. But I do know that many of us are innately tied to this trauma as if it were strung into our DNA.
For the Hmong, to retain history and identity means also to retain trauma and loss. I carry the afflictions of this war even though I have never heard a bomb explode or feared my footsteps might trigger a mine. This war is my inheritance.
But I also believe that we must forge a new narrative, one that not only embraces trauma but builds upon it. We must repurpose the wreckage to serve as a reminder of who we are while acknowledging what our elders endured.
It’s been 40 years since General Vang Pao flew off on that May 14th, looking out at the Laotian highlands for the final time. Forty years since the last American plane departed and left behind a war-ravaged people, a land plagued with unexploded ordnance, and a desolate Long Tieng. As we look forward, beyond the loss of our homeland, we must build a fortress of Hmong identity that can withstand the effects of exile and diaspora; one that won’t mourn what could have been, but instead, transforms the trauma into what we can fully be.