In this five part series, I talk about my mother’s childhood, her escape from Laos into Thailand, the journey from Thailand to America, her fresh start in America, and how she adapted to American culture. These stories are hard for her to talk about, due to the extreme poverty and emotional trauma that it left her with, many years ago. She is finally going to share those hardships and talk about those experiences here today…
(I asked my mother a variety of questions, but let her take the lead in telling me about her story. This was mostly pre-recorded audio, and I took bits and pieces of it and translated it into English so that I could share this with all of you.)
My Mother’s Story: Series Part 2: Her Escape
See where we left off in Part 1, read that here.
Brief History: Between 1964 – 1973
Laos is virtually the forgotten battleground of the Vietnam War.
During the Vietnam War, Laos suffered through heavy bombings that endured every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, carried out by The United States – making it the most heavily-bombed country (per capita) in history.
US bombers dropped more ordnance on Laos in this period than was dropped during the entire second world war.
The bombings were part of the U.S. Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government against the communist political movement, Pathet Lao, who were closely associated with Vietnamese communists.
For nine years, US bombed Pathet Lao territory, but failed to defeat them.
(Photo: Regions in Laos that were bombed)
Up to a third of the bombs dropped did not explode, leaving Laos contaminated with vast quantities of unexploded ordnance.
More startling facts on the U.S. bombing of Laos and it’s tragic aftermath from Legacies Of War:
- Over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War (210 millionmore bombs than were dropped on Iraq in 1991, 1998 and 2006 combined); up to 80 million did not detonate.
- Nearly 40 years on, less than 1% of these munitions have been destroyed.More than half of all confirmed cluster munitions casualties in the world have occurred in Laos.
- Each year there continue to be over 100 new casualties in Laos. Close to 60% of the accidents result in death, and 40% of the victims are children.
- Between 1995 and 2013, the U.S. contributed on average $3.2M per year for UXO clearance in Laos; the U.S. spent $13.3M per day (in 2013 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos.
- The U.S. spent as much in three days bombing Laos ($51M, in 2010 dollars) than it spent for clean up over 16 years ($51M).
When America withdrew from Laos in 1973, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the country.
Then in 1975 South Vietnam and Cambodia fell to the Communists. Seeing the way things were going, Royalists government fled from Laos allowing the Pathet Lao to take over.
The Pathet Lao control founded Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao:ສາທາລະນະລັດ ປະຊາທິປະໄຕ ປະຊາຊົນລາວ) on 2 December 1975.
Rumors began to spread that it would get harder and harder to make a living in Laos with the new government.
Since the communist government had taken over and changed the currency, my grandmother lost almost all of her money.
They would exchange the money they had, but in return would only receive a small percentage back. Not enough to live off of.
She had no way of providing food to care for her large family.
They were stuck in a huge dilemma.
If they were to stay in Laos, they would remain poor and live not knowing whether or not they would have food the next day.
If they were to flee from Laos, they did not know where they would be going and they knew that they could die.
Did they want to leave the only country they’ve ever lived in without any means, or did they want to move to an entirely new country and not know what the future holds?
With all of the political crisis and shortage of food, my grandmother knew it was time to take my mother and all of her brothers away from this country.
They had to take a chance.
Hundreds and thousands of other Laotians had to deliberate on this decision as well. Many stayed, and many fled. It was a risk either way.
For my mother’s family: Regardless of the risk, it was necessary for their survival.
Even if that meant death.
My grandmother informed my mother that she had a plan to flee Laos and to not tell anyone. My mother had no idea what to think, but she made sure she did not tell anyone.
The Lao government knew that people were traveling out of the inner provinces to outside provinces to get to Thailand.
To prevent people from leaving they enforced residents to fill out forms if they wanted to leave. They would need a thorough explanation of why they wanted to leave and the process was quite lengthy.
My grandmother knew that in order to all flee Laos without being suspicious, she would need to have my mother move to Vientiane to be closer to Thailand which would make it easier to take the rest of her kids separately.
So my mother filled out the forms to move from Louangphrabang to Vientiane. She lied and said that she was moving so that she could attend school.
Luckily, one of her friends knew a police officer and they went to see him. He had a crush on my mom’s friend, so it was pretty easy to persuade him to sign the forms. (A little flirtation never hurt anyone.)
After they were approved, she was able to buy a plane ticket and moved to Vientiane.
My mother was 15 years old at the time, and she had no idea where she was going.
My grandmother had a few friends that went along with her on the plane ride. They took my mother to her uncle’s home in Vientiane.
During her stay with her uncle’s family, at no point did she ever share that they were fleeing.
They could not trust anyone.
(Map shows how close Vientiane is to the Mekong River which borders Laos and Thailand)
She stayed at her uncle’s for about two weeks before her mother and her brothers were able to join her.
In Lao, when you visit your family, it is typical to stay for a few days in their homes and just leave when you’re ready. So my mother’s family staying at her uncle’s was not suspicious to anyone.
When my grandmother was able to get ahold of the people she was trying to cross over with, my mother informed her uncle that they were ready to leave and appreciated spending time with them.
They did not give any signs of trying to flee.
They made their way towards the border near the Mekong River. There was about 10 of them traveling together with a few friends.
As they got closer and closer to the water, they heard people shouting, “POLICE!”
The border security found them and began chasing after them.
They ran as fast as they could and found a temple nearby. They ran towards the temple and tried to hide from the police.
They found an opening in the front of the temple, like a front porch, and hid hoping they wouldn’t be found.
Their hopes were shot when they heard an officer screaming at them to get out and to go to the police station with them.
They all were afraid, and abided with the officers.
When they got to the police station, the officers kept asking them where they were going and what they were trying to do.
My mother was terrified.
She knew if any of them were to say they were crossing the border, they could all be killed.
Out of fear, they told them that they were visiting family they had in Vientiane. (Technically not a lie.)
So the police officers contacted those family members to see if it were true.
Luckily, my mother’s uncle was able to pick them up and testify to their allegation.
After they left the police station, my mother’s uncle was furious and let them all hear it.
He had no idea that they were trying to flee the country.
After he was able to cool down, he allowed them to stay with them a little while longer while they figured out what they would do.
Should they try and cross and risk being caught again, or should they just give up?
My grandmother decided that they needed a little bit more time to figure it out.
So in the mean time, she told my mother to go live with another family and work for them so that she could make a little bit of money.
All while my grandmother found other ways of leaving the country.
My mother left and moved into a home with another family. They were shopkeepers so she helped with their shop, and also helped around the house.
She would prepare meals and cleaned up for the family.
While she stayed with this family, there was another housekeeper living there as well. She had informed my mother that she was going to flee the country.
She asked if my mother wanted to join her and the group she was fleeing with. My mother was nervous and declined to go with them. They were all girls and she feared they would be too vulnerable.
She did not tell them that her mother was coming to get her anytime now to flee as well.
It was two months before my grandmother told my mother that it was time to cross.
When my grandmother came to get her, it was only her. She had sent her brothers off a week before on a boat with friends.
She had no idea if they made it or not.
Hoping they wouldn’t get caught again, this time near the water, my mother played around it trying to make it seem like they were swimming or supposed to be there.
They had to wait for the boat to arrive.
My grandmother had paid a man that had a boat to take them, and the boatsman agreed since he had some family members that he was going to sneak over as well.
When the boat finally arrived, they snuck in.
Security guards came into the boat, and began to check everywhere inside.
They checked the closets, the bathroom, and anywhere a door would open.
My mother and grandmother were hidden under a bed.
My mother was shaking of fear. She held her breath every time she heard the security guards footsteps. She clung onto her mother for dear life.
Finally it was quiet. The footsteps stopped.
They were gone.
My mother took a deep breath in and let a deep breath out.
The boat was finally taking off, and they waited for further instructions.
She thought it was finally over. Little did she know, it was just the beginning.
After a few hours, they were able to come out from under the bed and made their way outside of the boat to see land.
Then without hesitation, the boatsman said, “JUMP!”
My mother was shocked. They were about 100 yards from land, and she didn’t know if she could swim that far.
They had prepared the rubber from inside of tires to help them float on the water.
One by one my mother saw them jump. She was so scared.
Then my grandmother jumped.
My mother stood there in complete shock, and could not move.
Then the boatsman yelled at her and told her she better follow her mother.
So my mother jumped. Not knowing whether or not she would make it to shore; she swam and swam until her legs were numb.
Thousands of other Laotians would be shot and killed if found in the water, and she just prayed no one would shoot them.
As if the Thai police already knew they were coming, when they got to shore, the Thai police grabbed them…
Find out how my mother survived in Thailand as a refugee:
Coming Soon… In My Mother’s Story: Series Part 3
How did you feel about this part of the series? Tell me in the comments below!