The Following account is based on an interview with Paul Lo, who escaped the Communist regime in Laos for fear of retribution on his father who had been a military official working with the U.S. supported government in Laos before the Communists took over. Here is his story as adapted for SOF. I chose to present it as a narrative rather than in an interview format in order to give the tale the greatest impact and continuity. I was impressed by his recollection of every tiny detail of events which he obviously has relived over and over again for three decades.
A HMONG FINALLY TELLS HIS STORY TO SOF
I am a Hmong; I was born in 1959 at the beginning of a terrible conflict that had and still has an enormous cost to the Hmong people in Laos and Vietnam. I was born northeast of the Plan of Jars (PDJ) where the provinces of Loangbrabang, Samnuea and XiengKhouang connect in Laos. I barely remembered my village when my father took the family to Bouamelong, where American pilots flew most of their missions to and in Laos during Operation Lima 32.
I completed my elementary and secondary school years in Vientiane, the capital of Laos in 1975. Until then, my father served in support of United States government policies in the group that was and is known as the Special Guerrilla Unit (SGU). The members of the SGU were recruited, trained and paid by the Central Intelligence Agency. Laos was taken over by the Pathet Lao and the communists of Indochina in May 1975, right after the fall of South Vietnam.
My father’s life was in danger because of his high rank and his service to the government of the United States. Most of SGU’s personnel who were at the same or higher rank than my father fled the country right away. But my father and many others decided to stay with the Lao government because they believed the terms of the Paris Peace Accord and all of the high ranking members of the Lao Royal Army had not yet fled the country.
CIA’s LONG CHIENG BASE
My family remained in Laos at the CIA’s Long Chieng base (SGU headquarters). Later we moved out to a small village that was about a good day’s walk away. There, my family tried to survive everyday life under the shadow of constant worry. It wasn’t until September 1975 that my father decided to flee the country.
My father told me that we were going to travel to a city where the US used to dispatch its supplies, called Naxou and Banxone. There I had my first tears as a man without a country. I met my very good girl friend from my school. She saw me first and called out my name in the middle of the street.
She had tears in her eyes and asked me, “Are you going to go?” I answered “No”, I can’t go without you.” We spent about 10 minutes together; then she had to go back to her village. I never saw her again. I hope she is doing all right wherever she is now.
As soon as I got back home we were prepared to flee the country. My parents sent out my younger brother first by normal route, by bus. My father, my older brother and I left next to a village by a trail that took us three walking days. My mother, my other youngest brother and my two sisters were the third group. It took us about a week to get to Naxou, Banxone (the old US aid base), and again we prepared for the most dangerous route to Vientiane. From here, once again my family had to be separated. My young brother who had left the village earlier then again went out first. My older brother, my younger sister and I left together. My father and one of my younger brothers were together, and my mother ended up with the youngest brother and sister. This time we didn’t know when to depart; each group of us was to depart in its own way and date. This was the most uncertain time for myfamily’s escape to Thailand, especially for my father.
THE EMERGENCY CALL
At that time the local radio back in Long Chieng (the old SGU headquarters) had dispatched an emergency call for my father to report back to the base. That meant that my father could be apprehended at any moment. With the uncertain and very perilous situation of my father, my older brother, my younger sister and I left for Vientiane several days after my younger brother.
We were stopped and checked many times. At one point my older brother had to leave my sister and me alone over night to go get a pass for us. It took us three days to get to Vientiane, instead of a half day. In Vientiane the four older children were together and went to register in our schools. We were there for two weeks without any news from my father and the rest of the family. We still pretended to go to school and participate in most activities that were good to the Pathet Lao (the takeover). Especially I, who volunteered to help back at the village where we had previously lived. I learned how to behave properly in the new system without being suspicious of anything.
I had to; I say I had to do, because at one time back at the village I solved a matter with the Pathet Lao. My father wasn’t in the position to do it—my older brother had no intention to get involved. And because of my volunteering in the new system, I was able to solve the matter. One day in the third week my older brother didn’t come home. A friend came and said that my older brother had fled to Thailand. Also there was still no news from my father and my mother. I was in Vientiane by myself with two younger siblings.
A couple of days went by. I still had no news from my father and my mother. I did not have any news from my parents until they got to Thailand with the rest of the family.
TWO THAI STRANGERS
Then one day on the fourth week at around 8:00, two Thai women (I knew they were Thai by their voices) showed up at the gate where my younger brother, my sister and I were going to school. The Thai women said: “We are here to pick up two boys and one girl to go to Thailand. I was surprised and did not know what to do.
I asked the Thai women: “Who told you and how did you know that we were here”? The Thai ladies handed me a note in my older brother’s hand writing. It was from my mother’s younger sister, who had fled with her husband several months earlier. I told my younger siblings to gather our belongings, which were only our school books, some of our clothes.
We went with the Thai women. We got a taxi. I wasn’t even sure if the Thai women were really going to take us to Thailand. I was very young, didn’t know whether to be afraid or not, and had no idea what might happen. On our way to the secret place, we boarded a small boat to get to Thailand.
PATHET LAOS GRILL THE REFUGEES
The taxi driver had picked up a couple of more passengers. I began to recognize where we were headed. We stopped in front of the Lao Royal Army cadet school (Khai Chinaymo) for a check. The Pathet Lao ordered me to get out of the taxi. I was wearing khaki pants with a white shirt that was my school’s dress uniform. Again, because of my volunteer job back in the village, I knew exactly how to behave. As soon as I got out, I raised my arms right away and turned around one rotation. One of the Pathet Lao asked me: “Where are you going, little kid?” I calmly answered, well my siblings and I went to school, but there is no school today so we are going back home. The Pathet Lao looked at me again and asked another question: “Where do you little kids live?” I again calmly answered the question by giving him the name of someone who lived in a village that was located several miles farther south of Thatdua, where we were supposed to board the boat. Thatdoua is on the south of Vientiane and used to be one of the popular places where you can easily cross to NongKhai, Thailand. I was in that village once with my mother before
1975. Most of the people in that village were refugees from Plan of Jars in XiengKhouang, close to where I was born. They were very good friends with my mother’s family. Also some of them know my dad very well. Perhaps, because of my very calm answers and normal behavior, the Pathet Laos believed me and let us pass the checkpoint without any further questioning.
The Pathet Lao opened the taxi’s trunk and saw our school books and the Thai women’s two empty bamboo buckets with some little pieces of fresh vegetables in the bottom. Once we were let go, the taxi driver continued his route, in a direction which I did not recognize. I knew that we were not going to Thatdoua, because there were no more houses with solid bricks.
I wasn’t afraid nor did I have any kind of bad imagination in my mind. Suddenly the taxi slowed down. There was a Pathet Lao’s patrol car ahead of us. We were lucky; the patrol car was leaving and soon disappeared in the middle of banana trees. Then the taxi came to a complete stop, and the Thai women said to me: ”Here is where you guys need to go. Pass through that house and go to the Mekong River bank. There are boats at the Mekong River there waiting for you.”
THE THAI ANGELS DISAPPEAR
By the time I had finished paying the taxi driver, the two Thai women were gone. They had disappeared. My younger brother had also gone to the Mekong River bank. I heard the small boat’s motor running and ready for departure. My sister was still with me by the time we got to the house that was pointed out to me. I saw my younger brother in the boat and the boat had begun to depart already.
I heard someone’s voice saying “You two, you need to be separated.” I stopped walking and I said: “No, I won’t ever let my sister go into a different boat other than mine. I continued to insist and said, “If you need more money, I’ll pay you more. There is no way that my sister can go by herself.”
I heard another voice from the house saying, “Come up here, son. I went up in the house with my sister. It was an older man and he said, “You guys have too much stuff.”
I told the older man that I was willing to give him more money, but he needed to tell his partner to be nice to me, or I would go back and report to the authorities that they are smugglers. In those days, anyone who was known for smuggling people to Thailand would be shot and killed on the spot. I continued to tell the older man that if they drowned me and my sister in the Mekong River, I would become a devil and live in the deep of the Mekong River right at the spot where they may drown us. If anyone from the village tried to put his feet in the Mekong River in the future, I would grasp and pull that person into the deep of the Mekong River until he or she died like my sister and me. That was a serious threat for the older man, because I knew the Lao are very afraid and very scared of any ghost story. The older man told the younger man that it was OK for my sister and me to go into one boat. He also asked if I could keep some of my belongings, which I did.
AN AMERICA’S MOST LOYAL ALLY
I sadly left the country of Laos without looking back. Once we got to the Thailand side, my younger brother was waiting there for my sister and me. We heard cheers from a couple of my friends who were there by accident with their girl friends. My friends were so happy to see my sister, my brother and me, that they ended their romance trip and took us to the refugee camp without having to answer any questions from the Thai border patrol.
We were the luckiest people in the world. At the camp many people welcomed us because they knew my father and my mother. I did not see my parents and the rest of my siblings until some weeks later.
Thanks to God, we were all saved. Almost six months later I obtained a visa to go to France. Once again I left my parents, and went to France the day after my seventeenth birthday. Later I rejoined my family in the USA in 1990. My father passed away a couple of years ago, and all my siblings and I are all here with my mother in Colorado, the most beautiful state in the United States of America.
Here is what I had inscribed on the headstone of my father’s grave: “Hmong freedom fighter, an ‘America’s most loyal ally,’ now forever gone from the battlefield.”
The expression of “America’s most loyal ally” was given by William Colby, former director of the CIA.