T h e S e c r e t W a r
For fifteen years up to 1975, Hmong guerrillas were the brave and loyal allies of the United States, providing essential combat, reconnaissance and recovery support for the CIA's secret war against Vietnamese and Pathet Lao in Laos.
In April 1975, the US withdrew its troops from Indochina and in the following month, the CIA evacuated about 2500 Hmong officers and their families from their secret base at Long Chen in Laos to Thailand.
Many of those Hmong guerrillas and their families left behind attempted to walk to the Mekong River and cross into Thailand. Thousands of them were killed by Pathet Lao and Vietnamese troops.
Two and a half decades later, those who were unable to escape continue to suffer genocide and persecution at the hands of the Lao Army because of their allegiance to the US.
In the heart of the Moung Xaysomboune Special (Military) Zone in the mountains of Northern Laos, a group of CIA Secret War veterans continue to fight for their lives to this day. Desperately low on food and ammunition, their tactics are simple and dictated by their predicament; defend and run; but their plight is becoming increasingly desperate by the days as Lao ground troops tighten their noose around them.
"This time," says Hmong Cammander, Moua Toua Ther, "When the helicopters come, we will not be able to run or hide. We will be butchered like wild animals."
Bangkok 30th May 2003
Many of the people appearing in the images here were killed in the months following my visit.
Nestled in a narrow swathe of mountainous jungle, there lies a desolate place permeated with the smell of fear and resignation. A place where the crippled lead the blind and the disfigured and the only sounds of life is a mournful, human symphony of sorrow and loss. Bullet and shrapnel wounds abound and hollow eye-sockets follow your movements as you pick your way through teenagers cradling automatic weapons and old men leaning wearily on carbines. Children’s distended bellies hover under dull, aged eyes, and the faces of four generations of fighters are void of any hope.
On a cold pre-moon night in January 2003, my colleague, writer Andrew Perrin and I, scramble up a steep bank off the highway midway between popular tourist destinations of Vang Vieng and the Plain of Jars in the jungles of Moung Xaysomboune Special Zone and lie in wait for a nighttime rendezvous with Moua Toua Ther, the one-handed commander of a woefully inadequately armed group of survivors and their families holed up in the Pha Sie area.
Our escort arrives, tears of joy welling in their eyes, and, fast loaded up with sacks of precious salt and rice, we melt silently into the jungle.
At 02h30 we cross a creek and break for rest, young men and their commander huddled around a fire for warmth, intent on trying to catch a few fitful hours sleep with their rifles before setting off again in the pre-dawn mist and putting distance between ourselves and Lao Military patrols.
Three days, rivers and mountains after meeting with Moua Toua Ther we climb up a creek, navigating steep slippery cliffs and follow the dry, rocky, river bed that leads us into this desolate place.
On a rise in a distant clearing ahead of us stand the assembled group of some 800 people, or at least all those capable of walking, guerrillas and their families, dressed in rags, bathed in the harsh mid-morning sun, and as we approach, they fall to their knees, every last man woman and child prostrating themselves with hands clasped above their heads, tears cutting muddy tracks through weathered faces buried in hands.
There are no jungle sounds here, only the constant wailing associated with uncontrolled outpouring of grief and devastation kept inside too long.
I learn that we are the first westerners they have seen since they were abandoned by the US and that they are pinning their hopes of survival on our endeavours.