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Half a century ago, as war raged in Vietnam, an isolated community in the jungles of northern Laos was recruited by the CIA to help fight the Viet Cong.

Over 50,000 of the Hmong tribe became part of the US’s secret army, disrupting Communist supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Thousands of Hmong died in the war. But their problems didn’t end when the Americans withdrew.

Fearing a crackdown by Laos communist forces, many fled the country. But some several thousand stayed behind and continued to fight what they called ‘Red Laos’ from deep within the jungle, where they lived in hiding.

In 2008, Al Jazeera’s Tony Birtley trekked uphill for more than two days through dense forests in search of the Hmong who were left behind. He found a settlement of fewer than 200 people, most born after the war but still living as their ancestors had.

He was the first outsider they had seen in 32 years.

More than a decade later, Rewind spoke to Birtley about how he came to cover the story and what has happened to the Hmong since.

“[I had] a great desire to cover that because it’s one of those very important stories, but one that is overlooked because it’s so difficult to do,” Birtley says, recalling embarking on a “monumental hike for nearly three days over really, really large hills in darkness sometimes”.

At first, the Hmong welcomed Birtley as someone who they thought could save them. But soon after, they decided to hold him hostage as a bargaining chip to help get them international attention and assistance.

“The chief of these people was quite convinced that by holding me he could get the United Nations to come and save them, despite what I was telling him,” Birtley says. “They really believed that I wielded some kind of power and I tried to explain to them through a translator with bad English that this was not the case, and that really the United Nations was not about to come in and save them; that, really, they were still and would be on their own.”

“It was never a case of my life being in danger,” he adds. “I didn’t fear these people. I understood their desperation and they were using whatever bargaining tool they could.”

After his return, Birtley approached the UN and raised the issue of the plight of the Hmong with them.

“I went to New York, I went to the United Nations, I wrote to the secretary-general. I told everything I saw, I gave a link to the documentary I did. Absolutely nothing happened. When I raised it in a press briefing to the UN press people, they looked at me like ‘yeah, and what?’ It didn’t register on the social consciousness of the United Nations or, in fact, the world.”

“In many of the places I go to when you see the suffering, there is usually an outcome, there’s an end to that suffering sometimes,” Birtley says.

“But I got the sense – and since then I realised – that there’s no end to their suffering because no one has come to help them … If you put bloodshed on the TV screens, there’s going to be a reaction. But of course, nobody can see what’s happening to the Hmong; it’s happening out of sight.”

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  • hi … anybody can tell me :
    how is hmong people in laos today ? are they still hunted by the laos army or they have normal life today ?

    how about hmong in vietnam now … they have any problem with vietnam government today ?

  • The war between the Hmong and the CIA against the North Vietnam, it’s not between the Laos GVM, why we been kill by the Red Laos GVM, we’re not an animals, we are human beings same as everyone else, why every nations have the right and the Hmong peoples not, we die enough can the world see it.

  • These hmong said they are afraid of vietcong. Bro vietcong been out of laos for decades. Laotian army is also afraid of you hmong rebel because you guys are heavily armed. You are hiding in the jungle waiting for american to come back to rescue you. This white men that came you thought was american and was there to rescue you but no.

  • Dear Laotians,
    Please, forgive these people. True, they might have helped the invaders who came to abduct your ancestors' land. It happened long time ago. These people should not be punished for what their grandfathers have done. Please forgive and help them to live happily.

    Always, remember this Buddha's teaching.

    "Na hi verena verani
    sammantidha kudacanam
    averena ca sammanti
    esa dhammo sanantano."

    (Hatred is, indeed, never appeased by hatred in this world. It is appeased only by loving-kindness. This is an ancient law.")

    Forgive and accept them. That'll be a new beginning.

    "Sabbe satta bhavantu sukhitatta"
    (May all beings be happy!)

  • I don't know but look at what the UN has done in Africa? I don't think it will help the hmong to be taught English and French given some crumbs then raped and abandoned again.

  • The documentary i had seen they were in much worse condition their clothes was rags compared to here and their disappointment was much more devastating

  • This is not true. There had been other journalists who have gone there. I had seen a similar documentary in the 90s and the Hmong people were not settled the entire tribe was on the move

  • The correct way to pronounce Hmong is
    (Mong) The "H" is silent. Thanks for showing the world my people and teaching everyone who we are. The US couldn't save us all but they did try. These people just got left behind. Now it's litteraly impossible for them to come to the USA as they cut off their promise to bring every Hmong people to the USA

  • I hated being Hmong when I was younger. Hmong people suffered so many defeats in history that it’s pathetic. We are one of the most diasporic ethnic group into the world and we still don’t know how to love each other. A majority of Hmong people don’t even know their own cultural history which is saddening. As I’ve grown wiser with the passing of time, I no longer hate being Hmong.

  • Hmong allies Kurd allies. I’m ashamed for my country and angry for my grandfathers and mothers although they weren’t Hmong and did not collaborate.

  • Come to China, they live better level than Laos, but it just a big cage, come to Eu, America, Au, for more freedom, special more in VN, HMong can live where ever they want, do ever they want. And still got the new and old community too! U can live in the city or in the deeep mountain and still happy with out electricity. They just live

  • I’m upset at the coverage of this situation. The journalist needs to do REAL homework to delve into this situation more so that we understand the depths of it and how it is we could even possibly help these people. Why has this small group become isolated and targeted when Hmong are the 3rd largest population in Laos? Hmong people live in the large cities, have their own established villages, attend universities, own businesses, travel! There’s even a Hmong woman occupying the 3rd highest government position in the country! Obviously, all of this might not have been the case back in 2008 but whats the update?? Why was this particular group not able to leave the jungle? Where are they now?? You went to the UN and then what? It’s been over 10 years! These people are obviously in need of help. Its great to know you fulfilled your pet project of studying the Hmong because you couldnt do a story on the Vietnam War itself — but what now? They are starving and in despair. You ate one of their only chickens and allowed them to believe you were a white savior… then left. I could care less about how hard it was for you to hike in the middle of the night. Aljazeera has lost credit to me.

  • I heard this small village was attacked eventually, around 70 survived it is said. The village chief was captured and told to gather all other hmong villager to come out of the jungle. The chief didn't rat out and was eventually killed in prison camp. Rip to him.

  • God bless the Lao people
    Very inviting and good hearted people. Not many places like Lao exist in today's world, so refreshing meeting uncorrupted people

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