Out of Asia

How Ed and Georgie Szendrey witnessed 173 Hmong surrendering to the communists—and what happened afterward

HOMEWARD BOUND Georgie Szendrey, Nhia Vang Yang and Ed Szendrey pose for the author in Bangkok on the day the Szendreys headed home.

HOMEWARD BOUND Georgie Szendrey, Nhia Vang Yang and Ed Szendrey pose for the author in Bangkok on the day the Szendreys headed home.

Photo By Nirmal Ghosh

Ed Szendrey sat at the living room table in my Bangkok home sobbing, his shoulders shaking. He is a large man, by Southeast Asian standards.

“The men were saying goodbye to their wives and kids,” he said, tears welling in his eyes.

He was talking about the moment when 173 Hmong people, most of them old people, women and children, had separated from their husbands, sons and fathers and left the mountains of Laos after decades spent in hiding there. As he described it, the scene was wrenching, as none of the Hmong knew whether they would ever see each other again.

It was Monday, June 6. Szendrey and his wife Georgie, together with Hmong-American activist Nhia Vang Yang, had just arrived in Bangkok after being detained for 50 hours by authorities in Laos and then deported.

The impetus for the couple’s journey from Chico, which took them last week to the mist-enveloped tropical hills of Laos, can be traced back several years, when they found themselves sitting in their office with a young woman who was sobbing.

She was a Hmong, and she had just seen a video of her people in Laos being attacked by government troops. In the video, by sheer accident and coincidence, she had seen her father—with his leg blown off.

Ed Szendrey, who this month turns 62, was formerly a chief investigator for the Butte County’s District Attorney’ Office and has worked extensively on Hmong resettlement issues. He and Georgie, 55, along with Ger Vang, a Hmong American, run the Oroville-based Fact Finding Commission, a charitable nonprofit devoted to the “search for truth” over the issue of the Hmong, an ancient, hill-dwelling, nationless people once employed by the CIA to fight America’s “secret war” in Laos, which is now controlled by the communist Pathet Lao government.

Although many ethnic Hmong live in peace in Laos, the Pathet Lao apparently cannot forgive those who fought against them. This hatred is added to what the Hmong say is racial contempt for them, creating a potent mix for the ex-CIA-sponsored fighters, who are holed up in remote jungle hideouts, harried and hemmed in by troops who cut them off from food sources.

The Szendreys told how a long process of satellite phone calls, trips to Washington, D.C., and New York and finally a flight to Southeast Asia had ended in the predawn darkness the last weekend in May on a highway in Laos, where they were present to witness the surrender of 173 ethnic Hmong, mostly old people, women and children, who had come down from their mountains in a bid to have a better life and into the arms of a regime that looks down on them as “mien"—cat people—and despises them for their collaboration with the United States three decades ago.

The Szendreys, along with Nhia Vang Yang and Laos-based Hmong American Sia Cher Vang, stopped at a designated point between the Laotian capital Vientiane and the Plain of Jars. It was 4.30 a.m.

Some men appeared and led them down an embankment, where, though they could see nothing, they became aware that they were surrounded by people, including little children. As dawn broke the men said goodbye to their wives and children in the rising mist, hugging them, and disappeared back into the jungle, saying they would watch to see how their families were treated before themselves surrendering.

The crowd of 173, many with babies in their arms, climbed up the embankment to the highway and made their way to a local village with the Szendreys, who had been brought into the picture to help guarantee safe passage.

“Some were carrying elderly people on their backs, and some of the children were carrying babies,” said Ed, looking down at the table, his hands clasped in front of him. “Many were crying. The women were trying to hush their babies because they were afraid of attracting too much attention. Some were carrying bits of white paper on forked sticks, signs saying, ‘We surrender to the Lao government.’ And some were chanting, “UN, please help us.

“They were all in very dire condition. Their skins were scarred, they were dressed in rags. One little girl was blind in one eye. A boy, maybe around 10 years old, had a hand missing,” said Ed.

“Word had reached the villagers, who greeted them. We gave them money to buy two goats and a bag of rice to make food. And Georgie gave them 10 baby bottles with formula and some baby clothes.”

The local police chief arrived, saying he had received word from authorities in Vientiane about the surrender, thanks to the Szendreys’ efforts at contacting the UN in New York and the State Department in Washington, D.C. He was happy to facilitate arrangements to care for the Hmong, he said.

But two hours later army units arrived, and the soldiers said they would take the Hmong to a different place. A truck roared up, and the Hmong shrank back in apprehension. Most had never seen a moving vehicle.

“The places they live in are so remote, it takes a fit person four days to get there,” Ed said.

Seeing there was nothing further they could do and the military did not appear to be threatening the Hmong, the Szendreys, along with their two Hmong American companions, took a bus back to Vientiane, only to be detained by immigration authorities a few miles before the capital. They were taken to immigration headquarters in downtown Vientiane a few blocks from the U.S. Embassy, searched and repeatedly interrogated but not physically harmed. Requests to make calls to the U.S. Embassy were ignored. Some camera equipment they had with them was confiscated, and they were told they were interfering with the government’s relocation program.

“They read out some sort of confession to me and asked me to sign it, but I refused,” Ed said.

The experience left Georgie especially shaken.

“I’ve never been anxious or paranoid before,” she said. “But that experience shook me. I had nothing against the Lao government, but this has hurt me.”

“We had no desire to embarrass the Lao government.” said Ed. “Our plea is that the government will accept assistance in helping these people, these children, to have some sort of future.”

Eventually a U.S. Embassy vehicle pulled up outside the building, and they were handed over and driven to the Thai border. But the Lao authorities said they would continue to hold and question Sia Cher Vang, who had helped them make the trip.

A day after our conversation in Bangkok I met the trio again at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. They had had time to relax and get over the drama of the trip, they said—but Georgie still became emotional in describing what had happened.

“We personally feel the U.S. is obligated to help them; they fought for the U.S., we are responsible for them. Some of them had pieces of paper signed by General Vang Pao to prove they had fought for us,” she said.

And Ed, who says there are up to 2,000 more who would like to surrender, said, “They do not have the capacity to fight the Lao government. They only have a few Vietnam-era weapons and only a few bullets per gun. They are only barely surviving; they are incapable of mounting any kind of security threat.

“It is our understanding that they are at their end. Their only wish is to be treated well.”

The Szendreys came home last weekend.