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Books: The Legacy of the Secret War

A couple of years ago, I took a trip to Xieng Khouang Province in Laos to do some English language education training for SEALNet, the Southeast Asian Leadership Network. Khoang is the location of the Plain of Jars, a vast field where thousands of 2500 year-old stone jars are embedded into the landscape. It is one of the most important Iron Age archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. Ancient stone Buddhas and abandoned temples litter the countryside, waiting to be excavated. It is also one of the parts of the world plagued by UXOs or unexploded ordinances, bombs left over from the Secret War, the Laotian civil conflict fought between the Communist leader Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao government (supported clandestinely by the United States government) from 1953-1975. It is estimated that two million tons of bombs were dropped in Laos, 30% of which failed to explode immediately according to UXO Lao.

UXOs are just one of the ways that Laos was scarred by the Secret War. The SEALNet project I was working on focused on helping a local Hmong school to develop their English language curriculum. Many of the students that we worked with were the children of farmers who had lived with UXOs their entire lives. Exposure to UXOs and chemical weapons had disfigured many of them, leaving them with missing noses, lost hands, scarred faces. Even today, nearly four decades after the last bomb was dropped in 1976, the people of Xieng Khouang are still recovering from the effects of a war that few people knew was being waged. Many of the students I worked with were learning English with the hopes of one day emigrating to the United States, to far flung places like California and Minnesota, where many of their relatives live.

        A young woman walks through the fields with her son in Laos.

Ancient history and contemporary tragedies are common themes of the Hmong experience. Joel Pickford’s Soul Calling: A Photographic Journey Through the Hmong Diaspora, explores some of these themes through stories and photographs of the Hmong community both in the United States and in Laos. It is an ambitious project. Pickford begins in California, tracing portraits of new arrivals of Hmong-Americans in the fields of Fresno and then moves to a village in Xieng Khouang Province. The photographs are austere, stark and startling in their quality. Consider the photograph of the Xiong family, the first plate in the Fresno series. It is a picture of a family on beaten brown couch: a mother, two boys and a little girl, are all clustered together. None of them meet the camera’s gaze. You can see that the two boys are blind, one boy’s face is covered in a mass of scar tissue, caused by years of exposure to chemical weapons. His face is still bleeding.

Pickford’s written commentary further illuminates what he sees in these haunting photographs. Of Jong Xiong’s eyes, Pickford writes of how the “flame blue cataracts set against his mahogany skin give his eyes an eerie, far-off light, as though he sees things the rest of us cannot.” There is a luminous quality to these portraits of the after-effects of war; it is a vision of the future and legacy of the Secret War among the Hmong American community. Even as this family tries to start a new life in the United States, their bodies are scarred by the tragedy they left behind.

A Lao woman  in front of a painted backdrop which represents the 1975 evacuation of Long Cheng.

The second section takes place in a Lao village In Xieng Khouang Province. Looking at the pictures of the families in Fresno trying to eke out a living in the soil and then at pictures of families who are still trying to farm in Laos, it is hard to tell whether life has significantly improved in for families that have immigrated to the U.S. It is also important to see how traditions are maintained and preserved in both Fresno and Laos. I found myself flipping back between the two sections, trying to compare and contrast what I was seeing in Pickford’s vision of Fresno and what I was seeing in Laos. Plate 25 shows a woman putting on the multi-colored Hmong traditional garb in her home in Fresno. The image of this woman trying to preserve her culture in her new home looks remarkably similar to a picture of the women in Plate 148, who are participating in a ceremonial ball-throwing game in Laos. Despite their geographical separation, the two women’s routines look the same, almost as if the geographical distance has had a minimal impact on their day-to-day life.

Pickford’s pictures tell a compelling story of a people in exile, but I found that the most moving piece was the transcription of Yer Lor Lee, a traditional Hmong shaman from Xieng Khouang Province who immigrated to St. Paul, Minnesota. She recounts seeing her mother, who was also a shaman, frustrated and sleepless during the war when she went from hut to hut to try and cure her villagers of their wounds and illnesses. Later in life, after Yer Lor Lee had settled in a nearby village with her new husband, her home was destroyed by a group of Pathet Lao’s soldiers. She fled with her family into the jungle. “The war changed everything about our lives,” she said. “We could not farm anymore and had to rely on American planes and helicopters to drop rice and other supplies.” Conditions steadily worsened: “You never really know how good rice tastes until you have so little.”

         A Lao woman puts on traditional Hmong garb in her home in Fresno, California.

Yer Lor Lee tried to survive in the jungle with her family for nearly a year, before finally seeing refuge at the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand. When her daughter died of malnutrition and illness in a refugee hospital, she decided that she needed to forge a new life and reconnected with some relatives that had moved to St. Paul. They helped her and her family apply for a visa. “To this day, I still have nightmares about the war and hiding in the jungle. When my kids ask me to go camping with them, I can’t bring myself to go because it makes me think of that time…We did not come to this country because it is a rich country. We did not even want to come; we had no choice but to come here or spend the rest of our lives in the refugee camp.”

Soul Calling is a monumental project and in some ways, the narrative presented by the pictures seems to be unevenly posed against the written commentary and interviews. At times, it felt like they were two separate works; a collection of pictures that showed the lives of a family, and the author’s fragmented recollection of his own experiences with the Hmong community. That said, the stories are important and compelling, especially for those who are interested in learning more about the legacy of the Secret War in the Asian-American community.

Born in Baguio City, G. Justin Hulog grew up in California before leaving home to study Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He writes a bog called The Palay that contains reflections on ruined gods, forgotten spaces and Filipino cuisine. 

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