Alongside the propaganda printed in the daily newspapers on the war in Kosovo, I’ve been reading a book that, curiously, provides an analogy to the Kosovo conflict. Entitled “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” (author: Anne Fadiman), the book is about one Hmong refugee family’s experiences in the U.S., but it also tells the story of how Hmong refugees came to the U.S., and why it’s been difficult for them to adapt to living here.
The saga begins back in the early 1960s with the secret U.S. war in Laos, conducted alongside the U.S. war in Vietnam. The Hmong hillpeople were a distinct ethnic group in Laos; they were chosen by the CIA in the 1960s to be trained to fight the communist Pathet Lao. Living in an area near the border with Vietnam, the Hmong were forced to make a choice: support the Pathet Lao or the U.S.-backed government in Vientiane (the capital city of Laos). About one-quarter of the Hmong population chose to support the Pathet Lao; the rest either tried to stay neutral (which quickly became impossible) or became the U.S. military’s soldiers on the ground.
Meanwhile U.S. military planes pursued a highly secret and active bombing campaign in Laos, which was in many ways very similar to the current NATO bombing of Kosovo and Serbia. U.S. planes flew at high altitudes to avoid anti-aircraft fire, dropped ordinance that was supposed to target only Pathet Lao forces (but often destroyed neutral or friendly Hmong villages), and dropped anti-personnel cluster bombs, many of which still remain unexploded today–a nasty surprise for repatriated Hmong in Laos. The main difference is that the U.S. military readily used napalm and defoliants to destroy jungle in Laos and Vietnam. But with the rapid escalation of the Kosovo bombing campaign–already NATO is considering the use of helicopter gunships and ground troops–can such scorched-earth policies be far behind?
In describing the effects of the secret U.S. war in Laos, it’s worth quoting Fadiman at length:
“In northern Laos, ninety percent of the villages were affected by the war–that is to say, the inhabitants suffered casualties or were displaced, or both. Entire villages fled en masse after their houses were burned and their headmen beaten or killed during nighttime raids by the Pathet Lao or North Vietnamese. Some villages decamped to avoid incidental bombing by American or Royal Lao aircraft. (In 1971, a Hmong leader in Long Pot, a village thirty miles northwest of Long Tieng [the main U.S.-supported Hmong military base in the region–ed.], was asked which he feared most, attacks by the enemy Pathet Lao or bombs dropped by his own allies. “The bombs!” he replied. “The bombs!”) Some were evacuated by Air America, on the theory that in areas where the Pathet Lao were inevitably advancing, the communists’ military gains would be diminished if they captured only land and not people. Some villages simply collapsed because all the able-bodied men were dead or fighting, and the remaining women, children, and elderly men were unable to work enough fields to feed themselves. By 1970, forced to adapt their migratory habits to wartime [the Hmong originally migrated from China to Laos in the early 1800s to avoid cultural repression–ed.], more than a third of the Hmong in Laos had become refugees within their own country. Yang Dao, a Hmong scholar and government adviser, wrote at the time:
…In the space of only a few years the southwest part of the Plain of Jars, once a lush green forest where tigers roamed, has been “urbanized” under the pressure of a continuing exodus that has no relationship whatsoever to the normal sort of economic development linked to industrialization. Today more than 200,000 people live in settlements and military bases ranging from 500 to 30,000 inhabitants, confined to a mountainous strip only 50 to 90 kilometers in area. The rest of the province is total desolation.”
In the same chapter, Fadiman quotes Jonas Vangay, a Hmong community leader living in Merced, California, who speaks five languages (Hmong, Lao, Thai, French, and English):
“My parents used to travel barefoot and on horse,” he said. “We lived in a rural and mountainous area where we never saw a car or a bus. Suddenly, in 1960, everything went upside down. The French wars hadn’t really influenced us so much. Less than twenty percent of the Hmong were involved in the battle of Dien Bien Phu. But with the U.S. war, it was ninety percent. You couldn’t stay in your village. You moved around and around and around. Four years later, when I went to Vientiane, what struck me is that you cannot see a lot of Hmong with their black clothing anymore. All are wearing khaki and green soldier clothing. And where we had lived, before the war it was all covered with forests. After the bombardments … il n’ya a plus de forets, il n’ya en a plus, il n’y en a plus, il n’y a rien du tout” … (“There are no more forests, there are no more, there are no more, there is nothing at all.”)
The parallels are too strong to miss. While Kosovo Albanians are more westernized than the Hmong were, they nevertheless are a mostly agrarian people living in a mountainous region. The KLA, who were widely viewed by moderate Kosovars as a group of extremists, are now the ground soldiers for NATO’s air war, and Kosovo refugees are joining the KLA in large numbers. As soon as the bombs began to drop, whole Kosovo villages were uprooted and burned by Serbian militias, while other Kosovars fled the bombing (although the U.S. media calls this “Serbian propaganda” and somehow forgets to interview any refugees on this subject). Many thousands of Kosovar Albanians have fled in anticipation of attack–which happens in any war, especially when anti-personnel cluster bombs are dropped haphazardly over a populated region. It’s clear that the U.S. government and NATO could have looked back to Laos, to Vietnam, or to the carpet bombing of Cambodia to see the likely outcome of a bombing war in the Baltics. The fact is that they didn’t do that–or, more likely, they just didn’t care about the inevitable humanitarian disaster that would–and has–followed.
The Kosovar Albanians resemble the Hmong in another very important way that’s been overlooked by U.S. media accounts of the refugee exodus from Kosovo. The Hmong were fighting in Laos to preserve their cultural integrity; that’s what they based their decisions to either join the Pathet Lao (who they believed would force them to assimilate) or fight for the U.S. (whose political rhetoric is laden with notions of “freedom of religion and expression.”) The same is true in Kosovo. The conflict centers around the struggle of a strong-willed people to remain culturally intact. Until the NATO bombing campaign, the majority of Kosovar Albanians had been engaged in a protracted, nonviolent campaign to win cultural and political rights within Yugoslavia. It was a task that could take decades, but it was pragmatic and obtainable. Now that dream is dead. The only two options left are to either flee or to fight for the KLA vision of an independent Kosovo odiously “ethnically cleansed” of its minority Serbian population. Is it any wonder that so many have chosen to flee?
To see what lies ahead for the Kosovar Albanians, we need only read a little more from Fadiman’s book on the current status of the Hmong:
“Seventeen years later, Foua and Nao Kao use American appliances, but they still speak only Hmong, celebrate only Hmong holidays, practice only the Hmong religion, cook only Hmong dishes, sing only Hmong songs, play only Hmong musical instruments, tell only Hmong stories, and know far more about current political events in Laos and Thailand than about those in the United States. When I met them, during their eighth year in this country, only one American adult, Jeanine Hilt [their social worker–ed.], had ever been invited to their home as a guest. It would be hard to imagine anything further from the vaunted American ideal of assimilation, in which immigrants are expected to submerge their cultural differences in order to embrace a shared national identity … The Hmong came to the United States for the same reason they had left China in the nineteenth century: because they were trying to resist assimilation … the Hmong are what sociologists call ‘involuntary migrants.'”
Like the Hmong, the Kosovar Albanians are being scattered around the globe: some will emigrate to the U.S., some will go to France, Australia, England, and elsewhere. But they will resist the melting pot–just as the Hmong have for over twenty-five years. Those Kosovars that stay in the neighboring republics of Macedonia and Montenegro or in Albania will become like the Palestinians, another people struggling to maintain their cultural identity and connection to their land. And so the war will continue–not for a year, not for two years or three, but for decades. That, unfortunately, is a common result of the American Way of diplomacy.
The above quotes were from “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures” by Anne Fadiman, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award. The edition I used is: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1997, ninth printing. The quotes were from pages 134-6 and 182-3.