Quietly and compellingly, Witnesses to a Secret War tells the stories of Hmong refugees in the U.S. and back in a Thai camp.
Editor's Note: Witnesses to a Secret War will screen at NYC's Visual Arts Theater on June 2nd, 2009 at 7pm. The screening is free and open to the public. The director and crew will be present for a Q and A afterward. The Visual Arts Theater is located at 333 West 23rd Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues, in New York City.
In a classroom at Wat Tham Krabok Refugee Settlement in Central Thailand, students learn to speak English. The Hmong refugees practice what they will need to say once they have arrived in the U.S. "I am here," they say, again and again. A girl giggles as she speaks, self-conscious about her pronunciation. Their teacher, KaYing Yang, explains the context. This is "cultural orientation" class, she says, though there is no word for it in Hmong. "Call it 'preparation for America,'" she smiles, and her young students smile as well. At long last they are leaving the camp where they have lived their entire lives.
"I always wanted to go back to the refugee camp," says Yang, now working for the International Organization for Migration, "because when I was there, I was too young to understand what was going on in the struggle. To be able to go back and give something back to the community is a dream come true."
As she explains in Witnesses to a Secret War, airing as part of PBS' Global Voices, Yang's story is not unusual. When she was last "there," in Laos, 30 years ago, the U.S. military was pulling out -- abruptly. With the Vietnam war ceasefire declared in Paris, 18 April 1975, the secret war that had been raging in Laos and Cambodia also ended. CIA officials evacuated just 2500 top Hmong officers and their families, leaving "the vast majority" of Hmong soldiers and their families behind to face the vengeful Pathet Lao. Throughout the rest of 1975 and 1976, KaYing's family and thousands of other refugees fled the country, crossing the Mekong River into Thailand during the dead of night, under fire from the vengeful communist troops, fearful and desperate and utterly on their own.
Choua Thao, a nurse during the war, remembers promises made by Americans who said, "Win the war, we're on top of the world, if you lose, we will tear up you." Boua Vang Yang, once of several members of the special guerrilla unit trained and supplied by the CIA, recalls, "They recruited us for a war we didn't want to fight. We had to leave our loved ones and our homes for months, years at a time." The fighting haunts veterans still, as does the loss they suffered. Lia Yeng, a former soldier, says, "It's more than your father or your parents or somebody close to you die. It's your nation, die. It's more than any experience you ever have in your life, because it's not just the past. The future is dying too."
Deborah Dickson's documentary, like Ellen Kuras' Oscar-nominated Nerakhoon (2008), looks at the many betrayals and losses endured by Hmong refugees. Witnesses includes interviews with multiple subjects, refugees who moved to the States in the 1970s as well as camp dwellers who, in 2003, decide to take up the last American offer for "resettlement" in the States. The choice is not an easy one -- then or now. "An immigrant has a choice to come to America," says Tzianeng Vang, "But a refugee really has no choice. You either resettle or you're exterminated, you have no home to call home." Those who remained in Thailand in 1975 were hoping against hope to return to Laos, to reclaim the home they knew. As that possibility faded over time, they lived surrounded by barbed wire, their homes small and dilapidated, their livelihoods limited, their expectations increasingly meager.
The film turns from Thailand to St. Paul, Minnesota, the Twin Cities home to "the largest concentration of Hmong in the western hemisphere" (his point is neatly illustrated with a series of shots in the grocery store shelves, where U.S. detergents, sodas, and snack foods are lined up alongside equally bright packages labeled with Hmong script and spring rolls at the deli counter). "Now we are living like people in other countries," says one recent immigrant. "Here we have the opportunity to be successful." To live "like other people," however, means to abandon some Hmong traditions. "Here, we don’t see each other as often. There's a longing."
This longing is expressed variously in the film. Cy Thao, artist and Minnesota state representative, shows in his paintings the stories he has heard from elders of "The Hmong Migration." He remembers that when he first came to the States as a child, "I didn't speak the language, I didn't know how to read or write, but I knew how to draw pretty well. That was my way of communicating and making friends." When, in college, he "came across" a picture of a Hmong family being tortured by the communists, he was moved to preserve that history. "A lot of the folks who I had talked to about the war," Thao says, "They kind of needed someone to communicate their experience and to put some closure to it." Whether or not the paints bring closure is up for question, but they do tell a brutal story, with bold, thick, almost Gauguin-ish figures set against blue skies and green fields, farmers bent over their work, dead cows with necks twisted in agony, and soldiers with guns all painted with the same verve.
Another sort of vivacity is visible in the real lives of refugees. KaYing remembers the discrimination she felt when she came to the States in 1976. "White students always said, 'Go back to where you came from,' and I didn't really know where I came from." When she leaves the camp to come home after two years working there, KaYing visits with her friend, Mae Yia Thao. Standing in her kitchen in St. Paul, she notes how well her children are adjusting to the change: "We're older so it's harder for us... We want to work, but we can't understand what they say to us." Thao's husband Xue Xiong adds, "When we got here, life was difficult. Our life back there seemed simpler. But once we understood our happiness was here." Here and there, life remains hard, but also unstoppably hopeful.