Date: Tue Dec 09 2008 - 23:24:05 EST
Drawing the Future from the Past
Channapha Khamvongsa | December 5, 2008
Editor: John Feffer
The bombing was relentless. From 1964 to 1973, the United States dropped
more than 2 million tons of ordnance on Laos. That's a planeload of bombs
every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Laos has the
unfortunate distinction of being the most heavily bombed country in the
history of the world.
"In the area of Xieng Khoang, the place of my birth, there was health, good
earth, and fine weather," one survivor, a 33-year-old man, recalls of that
period. "But then the airplanes came, bombing the rice fields and the
forests, making us leave our land and rice fields with great sadness. One
day a plane came bombing my rice field as well as the village. I had gone
very early to harrow the field. I thought, ‘I am only a village rice
farmer, the airplane will not shoot me.’ But that day truly it did shoot
me and wounded me together with my buffalo, which was the source of a
hundred thousand loves and a hundred thousand worries for me."
For nearly three decades, the U.S. secret war in Laos and the impact of the
most massive bombing campaign in the world was nearly forgotten. For those
who remembered, the events seemed surreal. They witnessed the reckless
destruction of a people and their land, and careful efforts by the U.S.
government to conceal it. For those too young to know, gathering
information and knowledge of this history was scattered and fragmented. It
seemed the secret war in Laos and its aftermath would remain a secret.
But then a remarkable set of drawings and eyewitness accounts came to
light. Laotian villagers put their memories on paper in the 1970s to depict
the secret bombing of their country. This trove of reminiscences became the
inspiration for Legacies of War. Founded by Laotian Americans in 2004, the
project raises awareness about the history of the Vietnam War-era bombing
in Laos. Using a unique combination of art, culture, education, community
organizing, advocacy, and dialogue, Legacies of War also works for the
removal of unexploded bombs in Laos, to provide space for healing the
wounds of war, and to create greater hope for a future of peace.
A Secret War, a People Scattered
When the United States withdrew from Indochina, the "Secret War" in Laos
was lost to history. But the legacy of the war lives on. Up to 30% of the
cluster bombs dropped by the United States in Laos failed to detonate,
leaving extensive contamination from unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the
countryside. That translates into 78 to 130 million unexploded bomblets.
Over one-third of the land in Laos is contaminated. These "bombies," as the
Lao now call them, have killed or maimed more than 34,000 people since the
war's end, and continue to claim more innocent victims every day. About 40%
of accidents result in death, and 60% of the victims are children. UXO
remains a major barrier to the safety, health, livelihoods, and food
security of the people of Laos.
The war also displaced up to one-third of the Lao population. Nearly
750,000 would eventually become refugees in France, Australia, and Canada,
among other countries. Over 350,000 refugees from Laos came to the United
States after having experienced war, destruction, death, imprisonment,
family separation, loss of homeland, loss of identity, and loss of control
over their destinies. Many had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.
But these weren't things Laotian refugees had the luxury to contemplate,
for basic economic survival trumped all other needs.
Drawing on the Past
Between December 1970 and May 1971, Fred Branfman, an American, and
Boungeun, a Lao man, collected illustrations and narratives in the
Vientiane refugee camps, where bombing victims fled. The drawings and
narratives represent the voiceless, faceless, and nameless who endured an
air war campaign committed in secrecy. Drawn in pencil, pens, crayons, and
markers, they are raw and stark, reflecting the crude events that shaped
their reality. The simplicity of the narration and drawings emphasize the
illustrators' identities as ordinary villagers who bore witness to a
For instance, an 18-year-old woman remembers, "In the year 1967, my village
built small shelters in the forest and we had holes in the bamboo thicket
on top of the hill. It was a place to which we could flee. But there were
two brothers who went out to cut wood in the forest. The airplanes shot
them and both brothers died. Their mother and father had just these two
sons and were both in the same hole with me. I think with much pity about
this old father and mother who were like crazy people because their
children had died."
Each of the illustrations demonstrates the violence of warfare. However,
the images of blood and death are contradicted by the memories of the
scenic and peaceful village life these survivors once lived. Scenes show
farmers tending to their rice fields, monks praying at the temple, women
going to the market, and children playing in the schoolyard. The drawings
capture the very moments when their lives and society were forever altered.
The illustrations and narratives are at the heart of the Legacies of War
National Traveling Exhibition, which is accompanied by historical photos,
maps and other relevant documents to give context to the decade-long
Only a small circle of individuals knew of the existence of these
illustrations. The pictures hadn’t been seen in decades, not since the
end of the war. A fortuitous meeting between me and Institute for Policy
Studies director John Cavanagh led to the return of the illustrations to
the Lao American community. In the last several years, thousands of
visitors have seen the illustrations through the Legacies of War traveling
exhibit and other community forums. Although most Laotian Americans didn't
experience the same horrors depicted in the drawings, the illustrations
invoke memory of their own stories of refuge, survival, and resilience.
The reaction to the drawings was instructive to Legacies’ work. Initially
considered an artifact, the illustrations have become a living document.
One at a time, each drawing tells the story of a survivor. Although the
illustrations were from four decades ago, they inspire others to share
their stories, contributing to a collective narrative that began long ago
in Laos, but continues today through the voices of Laotian Americans.
Following a viewing of the illustrations at an exhibit in Lowell,
Massachusetts, a Lao woman in the audience stood up to speak at a community
forum, "The illustrations made me remember. I have not shared, not even
with my family because I didn't think it was important. When I was a young
woman in Laos, I worked as a nurse to help people hurt by the bombing.
Every day, the airplanes would come: Boom! Boom! Boom! And then one day, it
came so close to us, we had to hide in the cave and we hear right outside
the cave, the sound so loud. It scared me so much. I feel so lucky I did
not die. The pictures made me remember. I am so sad that today, people in
Lao are still being hurt and dying from these bombs." The woman, whose
husband had spoken on several occasions about his experience, had never
shared hers. The illustrations and community forum gave her a chance to
tell her story for the first time in 30 years. Today, she remains engaged
in educating people in the Boston-area about the bombing and its aftermath.
These new voices and stories are captured in various ways through Legacies
of War: interactive exhibition pieces, community programs, oral history
interviews, theater performance pieces, and new commissioned works of art.
Based on oral histories collected from Laotian refugees and their
descendents, the Refugee Nation theater piece reveals connections between
U.S. and Southeast Asian history, and the unique challenges faced by
political refugees and their American children. Touching on themes of
identity, globalization, and activism, it brings a Laotian voice to a
growing part of the Asian-American Diaspora that is yet to be included in
the American experience.
The integration of storytelling, art, and performance are critical in
breaking the silence. By creating multiple access points of engagement,
Legacies of War facilitates the connection of personal stories to a
collective experience in recognition that we are not alone in our
experiences, that we are connected to a larger narrative and a larger
context. The acknowledgement of a shared journey and struggle could lead to
collective strength and power.
Since the end to the U.S. wars in Southeast Asia, many other wars have been
waged, in other parts of the world, in new terrain, villages, and
communities. Yet, the wars in Southeast Asia lingers. And for the people
living in Laos as well as those who became refugees, the lingering impact
of war remains ever present in their daily lives. Although war and conflict
created the refugee community, they don't have to define it. Through the
transformative power of stories, art, and performance, Laotian Americans
are evolving from victim to agency of change. "Now that I know about the
secret war," said a Lao American student in Seattle, "I have to do
something about the horrible things that are still happening to people. As
Americans, we must do something."
Another victim, a 37-year old woman, reflects, "Our lives became like those
of animals desperately trying to escape their hunters . . . Human beings,
whose parents brought them into the world and carefully raised them with
overflowing love despite so many difficulties, these human beings would die
from a single blast as explosions burst, lying still without moving again
at all. And who then thinks of the blood, flesh, sweat and strength of
their parents, and who will have charity and pity for them?...In reality,
whatever happens, it is only the innocent who suffer. And as for other men,
do they know all the unimaginable things happening in this war?"
Channapha Khamvongsa, the executive director of Legacies of War, is a
Foreign Policy In Focus contributor.
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