The End of the Hmong

James Pringle,
Newsweek,
August 27, 1979

While world attention has focused on the ordeal of Vietnam’s “boat people,” thousands of Laotians have made an overland trek into Thailand to escape their country’s Communist regime. Last week, Newsweek’s James Pringle visited two over-crowded Laotian refugee camps in a remote region of northern Thailand. Pringle’s report:

The scene at Ban Vinai camp is one of appalling misery. Starved babies, too feeble to cry, lie listlessly on makeshift beds in bamboo huts. Many of them have been grotesquely shrunk by months of malnutrition and now resemble little living corpses. Day after day, children are dying, weakened by the jungle march through Laos and a diet of tree bark, roots and boiled leaves. For many children, the drugs and intravenous feeding they are now receiving come too late to save them. “Malnutrition is a slow process,” said Rene Bollozos, the senior doctor at the camp. “There is nothing immediate medical attention can do.”

The 40,000 people crammed into Ban Vanai’s hovels are Meos - remnants of the mountain tribe that the Central Intelligence Agency organized into a secret army in the 1960s. In those days, the Meos, or Hmong, as they prefer to be called, battled the Pathet Lao Communists with the clandestine backing of the CIA and US Special Forces. Now, they are on the run, and they seem a broken people. Pathet Lao forces are bombing and shelling their homeland in the Phu Bia Mountains of central Laos to end Hmong resistance to Communist rule. The Hmong feel abandoned by the world. “Our culture will die,” one refugee said with resignation. An international aid official glumly agreed: “The Hmong have come to the end of the road.”

Ordeal

The refugees’ long march to Thailand is often an agonizing ordeal. They must make circuitous detours over mountains and through rain forests to avoid ambushes set up by the Pathet Lao and their Vietnamese allies, who have 50,000 troops in landlocked Laos. The journey takes a devastating toll: refugee officials estimate that a third of the Hmong die in the jungle. Those who make it to Ban Vinai usually arrive in perilous condition. “People are digging graves every day,” said a camp doctor.

Officials of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees have declared the Ban Vinai camp a medical emergency. Malaria, gastrointestinal and respiratory diseases are already rife, and doctors fear an epidemic of typhoid or cholera. “We have no time for preventive medicine,” said Dr. Bollozos. “The majority of the people have had no vaccinations.” The condition of the children, hundreds of whom are suffering from marasmus, or carbohydrate starvation, is causing the greatest concern. In Center Six, where new arrivals are housed, I watched one woman gently fanning her small son. Though less than 2 years old, he looked like a wizened old man. Doctors say half of all infant arrivals have marasmus, and, in all, 3,000 children are ill from malnutrition.

For one American, Jack Blalock, 47, a former pilot who flew the Hmong on CIA missions, helping the refugees is a matter of honor. Three weeks ago, Blalock left his importing business in the hands of a partner and came to Thailand, where he built a 33-bed hospital. “The Hmong fought for us and were very pro-American,” he told me. “We lost the war, pulled out and left them holding the baby.” Blalock believes the forgotten people of Laos are more deserving of US assistance than refugees from Vietnam. “The Vietnamese weren’t fighting for us; we were fighting for them,” he said. “And we don’t owe them a thing.”

Despair

The Hmong face a life in limbo - months and years in camps like Ban Vinai - with just a slim hope of emigrating to a Western nation. More than 12,000 Hmong have already been in the camp for four years, according to refugee officials. The despair and boredom led four Hmong to jump to their deaths from a bridge recently. Pradith, a 29-year-old Laotian woman, has chosen another course. Twice each month, she makes secret forays across the Mekong River into Laos, retrieves her American-made M-16 rifle from its jungle hiding place and continues the guerrilla war against the Pathet Lao. She discounts the dangers - “My hatred is greater than my fear,” she told me. Pradith and the other guerrillas in the Thai camps usually go on ambush or reconnaissance missions. But last week, she was proselytizing, trying to persuade the Hmong and other Laotians not to give up their country. “They are wrong to go,” she said; “they are discouraged and think we shall not succeed.”

With the Vietnamese occupation army steadily increasing its control of Laos, there seems little the Laotian refugee groups can do to win back their homeland. The guerrillas may number only a few hundred at most, and they appear to be receiving minimal external help. “We need weapons, uniforms, rice, money and medical supplies,” one guerrilla leader told me. “If we have that, we can finish it in one year.” After my visit to the refugee camps along the Mekong, it seems to me far more likely that even token resistance to the Communists will be all over a year from now.