Hmong Anti-Communist Fighters Leaving the Jungle

Margie Szendrey, Nhia Zhang Yang and Edward Szendrey

hide captionFrom left: Americans Margie Szendrey, Nhia Zhang Yang and Edward Szendrey. The trio, recently deported from Laos, say they were trying to help families of former veterans of the CIA's secret army surrender to authorities after decades on the run.

Doualy Xaykaothao

Failed anti-communist fighters are beginning to emerge from the jungles of Laos, 30 years after defeat. The fighters once worked with the CIA to overthrow the communist government of Laos — and ran for their lives after the communists won in 1975 — are finally beginning to leave the jungles of Laos and re-enter society. Doualy Xaykaothao reports from Bangkok.

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First, to the nation of Laos in southeast Asia, squeezed in between China, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. During the war there 40 years ago, the CIA recruited thousands of Laotian hill tribespeople in the war against communism. These people were called the Hmong and the Kamul(ph), and there were others. After our defeat in 1975, the Hmong either left Laos for refugee camps and resettlement here or fled into the jungle. Now as Doualy Xaykaothao reports, some of those who fled to the forest are starting to emerge.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO reporting:

One of the few outsiders to reach the Hmong in the jungles is Andrew Perrin of Time magazine. He and photographer Phillip Blenkinsop traveled to Laos several years ago, hiking into the mountains for three days until they found a community of some 2,000 people. Perrin said this group had not seen a white face for more than 30 years, and he said the group was clearly led by Hmong veterans from the CIA's secret war in Laos.

Mr. ANDREW PERRIN (Time Magazine): You can't imagine what kind of condition these people were in. They have no access to health care. They're constantly on the move, which means it's very difficult to find food. The Lao government is constantly launching attacks against them. So a lot of them have injuries, whether bullet wounds or from bombs that have dropped.

XAYKAOTHAO: The Lao government vehemently denies persecuting the Hmong or any other ethnic group that sided with Americans decades ago. Yong Chanthalangsy is the spokesperson for the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Mr. YONG CHANTHALANGSY (Spokesperson, Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs): After the war, we reintegrate everybody in the society. Only those who reject the society and try to paint the society in black have animosity against us. We do not have any animosity against anybody, and we are ready to reintegrate everybody in the society. There is no discrimination of any kind.

XAYKAOTHAO: But a California group that calls itself the Fact Finding Commission, or the FFC, disagrees. Georgie and Ed Szendrey are with the FFC, a non-profit organization that says it helps the Hmong in Laos. The group said some former Hmong veterans of the CIA's secret war contacted them saying they and their families were starving to death in the mountains and many would not make it past the rainy season. Georgie and Ed said they felt compelled to help these veterans surrender their families earlier this month; the fighters themselves were not prepared to surrender. Georgie describes the early morning scene when the families came out of the forest.

Ms. GEORGIE SZENDREY (Fact Finding Commission): We get down this little hill, it's about 100 feet down. All of a sudden, you have little children just coming up by you, surrounding you and kind of whispering and, you know, talking in Hmong. They're kind of crying and--because it's really dark but you can see shadows just all around you and it's getting lighter at the same time. And then you have the men saying goodbye to their wives, and they were rubbing the tops of their heads and they were kissing their children goodbye. And then within minutes, they were gone.

XAYKAOTHAO: Ed says, `The men then returned into the deep jungle, leaving their families in our trust.'

Mr. ED SZENDREY (Fact Finding Commission): I look back and here are these old guys trying to carry these paper signs. I can't read them, either. Another one holding a crooked stick with a white flag on it. Some people carrying their elderly 'cause they can't walk up the mountain. There are these ladies carrying their babies and they're coming up out of this valley in the morning mist and it was a very, very overwhelming scene. And we' have done everything we can to ensure that they're going to be OK. We had to do that. We couldn't tell them to stay in the mountains and starve to death. We had to believe that their best alternative was in the hands of their enemy, and we just plea that the Lao government will take care of them.

XAYKAOTHAO: Nhia Zang Yang also works with the FFC. He's Hmong and a naturalized American. He said he felt obligated to help.

Mr. NHIA ZANG YANG (Fact Finding Commission): (Through Translator) I didn't even cry when my parents left for America, for another world, without me. But when I saw these people emerge from the forest, as soon as they came out, they grabbed me here and there, women, men, children, all crying. I cried with them.

XAYKAOTHAO: Yang said the people he saw lived in terrible conditions and were extremely sad. Lao officials have apparently treated the group well, according to the FFC. The US Embassy is urging the Lao government to address the ongoing issue in a peaceful and transparent manner. For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Bangkok.

CHADWICK: And I'm Alex Chadwick. There's more coming up on DAY TO DAY.

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