By Andrew Perrin. There were hundreds of them, perhaps a thousand. They wept and knelt before me on the ground, crying, “Please help us, the communists are coming.” I had hiked four days to reach this forsaken place deep in the jungles of Xaysomboune, northern Laos. The Hmong rebels prostrate before me were convinced they would all soon die. They knew they were a forgotten tribe, crushed by a military campaign that is denied by the communist leaders of their small, sheltered nation.
In all my years as a journalist I had never seen anything like this: a ragtag army with wailing families in tow, beseeching me to take news of their plight to the outside world. I walked among starving children, their tiny frames scarred by mortar shrapnel. Young men, toting rifles and with dull-eyed infants strapped to their backs, ripped open their shirts to show me their wounds. An old man grabbed my hand and guided it over the contours of shrapnel buried in his gut. A teenage girl, no more than 15, whimpered at my feet, pawed at my legs and cried, “They’ve killed my husband. They’ve killed my mother, my father, my brother �” But before she could finish, others were pushing her aside to sob out their own litanies of loss. In this heart of darkness, nobody has a monopoly on grief.
Now, for the first time in nearly three decades, this dwindling group of outcasts are completely surrounded by the Lao government troops that hunt them. They are trapped in a narrow swath of jungle, with all avenues of escape blocked by either soldiers or antipersonnel mines. “This time,” says Moua Toua Ther, 46, the one-armed leader of the camp and commander of its pitifully equipped fighting force, “we will not be able to run or hide. When the helicopters come we will be butchered like wild animals.”
What is the crime this ragged bunch has committed? It is simply that they are Hmong, mostly the children, grandchildren or even great-grandchildren of fighters who in the 1960s sided with the U.S. to fight communism in Laos during the Vietnam War. Fabled for their resourcefulness and valor, many Hmong became members of a secret CIA-backed militia that helped rescue downed U.S. pilots and disrupted North Vietnamese supplies and troop movements along the Ho Chi Minh Trail through central Laos. The communist Pathet Lao movement�and its patrons in Hanoi�has never forgotten the Hmong’s complicity with the Americans. Shortly after the Pathet Lao took power in 1975�two years after the U.S. had fled the country and left the Hmong soldiers to their fate�a communist newspaper declared the Party would hunt down the “American collaborators” and their families “to the last root.” But until TIME recently reached one of the last Hmong outposts, no one truly believed that, after 28 years, the Lao government still meant it. This, then, is the final act of a war that, according to history books, ended in 1973.
The Hmong, who migrated to Laos from southwestern China in the 19th century, have always been a proud, warlike people. In the 1920s a Hmong rebellion against their French rulers erupted in much of Laos and northern Vietnam, ultimately failing but leaving thousands dead. When the French left Laos in 1953, the Hmong found themselves fighting again�this time against the threat of communism. Among the resisters was a young Hmong general named Vang Pao, who in 1961 was commissioned by the CIA to set up a secret army to fight the advancing communists. Over the next decade nearly half of the 40,000 Hmong fighters in Vang Pao’s army are thought to have perished during the fighting. The reward for their sacrifice? The Paris cease-fire agreement of 1973, which signaled an end of U.S. aid. Vang fought on for two more years, but when it became clear that the Pathet Lao would win he fled to Thailand and then to the U.S. Today, some 200,000 other Hmong live in exile communities in the U.S. But not all Hmong made it to America: 15,000 of Vang’s brethren were cut off from escape and were forced to melt away into the mountainous jungles of Laos.
Even from California, where he leads the United Lao Liberation Front (ULLF), Vang, 74, casts a long shadow over his people. Moua says he reports directly to Vang�a claim the Californian denies, though he does admit to providing occasional help. From his suburban American home, the exiled general demands democracy and a reinstatement of the monarchy in Laos. Moua and his militia are among the remnants of Hmong rebel groups fighting for that disappearing dream.
Moua joined Vang’s secret army at age 15. His left arm ends in a stump�his hand was removed in a 1974 jungle amputation. One of only four people in the village with some writing skills, he is a meticulous keeper of village statistics�there are 56 orphaned children, 40 widows and 11 widowers. By Moua’s count, 30% of the villagers have shrapnel wounds. In 1975, when Vang fled Laos, Moua recorded his group at 7,000 people. Today there are only about 800 left.
Although the Hmong have been on the run for nearly three decades, Moua and others in his village regard the past year as the worst. In October, they say, some 500 ground troops attacked them from four directions in Xaysomboune while a gunship strafed them from above. In all, 216 Hmong were killed. Such assaults can come at any time. Last August, a mortar round landed less than a meter from nine-year-old Yeng Houa’s family dinner table, killing both his parents. Yeng survived, but I count 18 shrapnel scars on his legs, his jaw is broken and there is an infected sore on his inner thigh. Since the attack, he has not spoken.
The Hmong say they are too ill-equipped to strike back. Most of their fighters are armed with ancient M-16s and AK-47s, and the heaviest weapons at their disposal are two geriatric M-79 grenade launchers. Ammunition is mostly dug up from former U.S. air bases. According to Moua, only a third of the rounds are actually live, negating Hmong chances of launching a viable offensive. As for the Lao government, which declined to talk to TIME, it denies allegations that it is decimating Hmong rebels and blames them for much of the unrest in the country. It insists that Hmong are doubling as bandits. In February an ambush on a bus traveling the busy Highway 13 in the north left 12 people dead, including two Swiss cyclists. A calling card pinned to one of the corpses indicated the deaths were the work of Hmong rebels. And on April 20, gunmen opened fire on a passenger bus, killing at least 13 people. Eyewitnesses to this massacre say the gunmen spoke to one another in the Hmong language. Vang Pao angrily denies claims that his men are responsible for attacks on civilians. “In the past there have been several events like this that have taken place and been blamed on the ULLF,” he says. “But it was not us. We believe it was organized by the government using Hmong people who serve in the Lao army.” For his part, Moua portrays the Hmong as helpless innocents. “We only defend and run,” he says. “If the Lao troops launch an assault, our ammo won�t even last an hour.”
Back in the mountains of Xaysomboune, Moua and his comrades sleep uneasily on beds of leaves inside banana-leaf huts. Most cannot recall how many times they�ve relocated, but they remember the people they�ve lost. Bhun Si, 42, says his wife and two sons were taken from him last October. His friend Soum Sai saw everything: the government troops came in, he says, and shot women and children from a distance of just five meters. Today, Bhun looks barely alive himself. Only two fingers remain on his left hand�he lost the others in a B-41 rocket attack that killed six of his fellow Hmong. His leg still bleeds from a suppurating shrapnel wound he received 13 years ago. One side of his face is a mask of melted flesh, with black sockets where an ear and an eye should be. “Everybody is dead,” he says. “Sixteen people in my family are dead, all killed by the communists.” In a heartbreaking refrain I heard repeatedly during my stay in the camp, he adds, “America must save us.”
Commander Moua, too, wonders where his erstwhile American allies have gone. “We shed blood with the U.S.,” he says. “They should remember this. They should find us a land where we�re safe and have food to eat.” But as the world has watched in awe of the might of the U.S. war machine in Iraq, the final scenes of a 30-year-old war in Indochina that America would rather forget are destined to play out unnoticed.