BANGKOK—Two Americans detained and expelled by Lao authorities for documenting the surrender of ethnic Hmong related to Hmong rebel fighters say the group included the very young and very old, all “very desperate.”
“These very desperate people were waving a white flag, coming down that mountain and trying to surrender and put themselves in the hands of the people who had been tormenting them for years, at a very scary time for them,” Ed Szendrey told Radio Free Asia’s Lao service.
Szendry and his wife, Georgie, helped found the U.S.-based Fact-Finding Commission (FFC), which seeks to publicize the plight of the Hmong.
“I am very sorry... very sorry that we lost the video of these people coming out, because it would have been very clear that was not some village that’s just moving from one place to another,” he said in an interview after Lao authorities expelled him, his wife, and a Lao-American in their group.
A fourth person, a U.S. national of Lao Hmong origin, remains in Lao custody for questioning.
What you saw was a tremendous amount of little children with big bellies, many of them had wounds, some had missing hands, some were blind in one eye, some of them had lost their hearing, some looked like they had been wounded as little children.
“We had the evidence, we saw them. We saw older people being carried on the backs of others. We saw little children, we saw their tattered conditions, we saw how scared they were,” he said. “The Lao government can say whatever they want. They took our film, they took our equipment and everything else. We committed no crime.”
Last year 500 to 700 rebels surrendered to Lao authorities in the country's northern provinces.
Hmong leaders and human rights groups had asked the Lao government to allow international observers to witness the surrender to be sure that they were treated humanely.
The surrender of some 170 Lao Hmong on Saturday was expected to be followed by thousands of others, winding up the Hmongs’ decades in the wilderness.
The group met up Saturday with a group of 170 Hmong women, children, and elderly men in the central province of Xieng Khouang just before they trekked out of the jungle to turn themselves in to authorities.
Szendrey, his wife, and Hmong-American Nhia Yang were detained and deported together, while their driver, Hmong-American Sia Cher Vang, remains in detention.
Georgie Szendrey, said the group was “totally shocked” to be detained and questioned for 48 hours by immigration officials in the Lao capital, Vientiane. “They refused for 48 hours to contact our embassy,” she said.
The group that surrendered was “absolutely destitute and desperate. What you saw was a tremendous amount of little children with big bellies, many of them had wounds, some had missing hands, some were blind in one eye, some of them had Lost their hearing, some looked like they had been wounded as little children,” Georgie Szendrey said.
“All of them were in very tattered clothing, all of them were hungry, all of them were very dirty and desperate for some kind of help to be given to them... It was the saddest thing I've ever seen in my life.”
Lao authorities released the three, Ed Szendrey said, when they “finally realized that our detention may work against them in terms of negative publicity.”
“We’ve broken no laws. We’ve traveled where travelers can travel. We’ve done nothing wrong. We’ve given food to hungry people. We’ve given clothing to people who have no clothing. All the things that any human being could do for another human being while they travel somewhere,” he said.
On Monday, a Lao government spokesman said that, “in order to maintain good relations between the United States and Laos, the Lao government decided to deport three of these bad U.S. elements.”
“As for the fourth, also a U.S. national, licensed to do business in Laos, he is still detained for further investigation,” Lao Foreign Ministry spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy told RFA’s Lao service. Chanthalangsy said the four had been detained since late Saturday afternoon.
The Hmong, advised by the CIA, fought on behalf of a pro-American government during the Vietnam War.
They later found themselves all but abandoned after their communist enemies, the Pathet Lao, won a long civil war in 1975 with support from thousands of North Vietnamse troops fighting inside Laos.
More than 300,000 Lao refugees, mostly Hmong, fled after the takeover, with many resettling in the United States. Thousands stayed behind, some adjusting to the new hard-line regime and others staying in the jungle, where they faced continuing attacks.
Original reporting by RFA's Lao service. Service director: Viengsay Luangkhot. Written and produced for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.