After decades on the run, 170 women, children and old men of the Hmong ethnic minority -- which was once part of a US-backed secret army fighting communists in Laos -- emerged from their jungle hideouts yesterday to surrender to the government.
Their move, expected to be followed by thousands of their fellow hilltribe people, is the first step in closing the book on one of the most tragic episodes of the Vietnam War.
US sympathizers who rendezvoused with the tribespeople said the first batch turning themselves in to the communist government were received warmly when they arrived shortly after first light at a Hmong village in central Laos.
The group, after several days' hard travel, began trekking at about 5am from a mountainside spot where they had encamped overnight to emerge at Chong Thuang village on Highway 7, a major road in Xieng Khouang province, said Ed Szendrey, a pro-Hmong activist from the US who met up with them in hopes of helping ensure their safety.
The Hmong were recruited by the US CIA to fight on behalf of a pro-American government during the Vietnam War, only to find themselves all but abandoned after their communist enemies, the Pathet Lao, won a long civil war in 1975. Fearing for their lives, many managed to flee into Thailand, and later resettled in the US and elsewhere, but thousands stayed behind, some adjusting to the new hardline regime and others staying in the jungle, where they faced continuing attacks.
But those animosities seemed to be forgotten yesterday, as the local police chief greeted them and villagers, also Hmong, prepared rice and other food for the tribespeople, Szendrey said in Bangkok.
If all goes peacefully, they will be followed by several thousand others from various Hmong bands hiding throughout Laos, Szendrey said in earlier interviews in Bangkok. The US-based organization he helped found, the Fact Finding Commission, has stayed in touch with the far-flung remnants of the Hmong -- 20 or so groups scattered around the mountainous country -- through satellite telephones.
Little reliable information about their fate was available until late 2002, when two Western journalists working for Time magazine made contact with one of the Hmong groups, and came out with startling photographs and stories of their desperate existence. Their reports helped highlight the plight of the Hmong, and were followed by more publicity, including several highly critical reports by Amnesty International, which accused the Lao government of gross human-rights violations in persecuting the Hmong.
The 170 who surrendered yesterday were apparently part of the group visited by the Time magazine journalists.
Szendrey, of Oroville, California, said that although the plan to surrender was voluntary, it was made in desperation as several pockets of the Hmong, pursued by government troops, believed they would starve if they didn't turn themselves in.
He said no soldiers or armed militia were present when they were received yesterday.
The local police chief, Wa Neng Lor -- himself a Hmong -- said he had been told to expect the surrender and that the military had been ordered to stand down. Some villagers, however, expressed concern about what might happen if Lao soldiers showed up, Szendrey said.
The surrender had been planned for weeks and was debated by many in the Hmong community in the US, some segments of which opposed any reconciliation with the communists. Vang Pao, the group's wartime commander and the de facto leader of the Hmong community in the US, supported the decision to surrender.