The Waves of the Mekong River

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| This is the 213th story of Our Life Logs |


I was born in Laos in 1964 to a family that already had two little girls: Akela, four, and Vatsana, two. My father had so wanted a boy, but alas, I was girl number three. My mother told him not to worry, for the next baby would be a boy to carry on his proud family name. To him, our name was our wealth. I can remember many nights when we sat around the dying fire after dinner while my father told stories of yesterday. Me and my two sisters would sit around with eyes shining waiting to hear how our royal ancestors (many generations removed) fought battles, governed a kingdom, and had children that would lead the next generation. I suppose we saw my father as another king in this fierce lineage. He was our noble, intelligent, selfless hero who could win any battle to protect us.

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From the year I was born until 1973, my country was bombed every eight minutes, day and night. When the U.S. became involved in the Vietnam War, Laos was swept into the conflict simply because of our strategic location on Mekong River, a small but vital pathway to China. We understood that the Americans were trying to disrupt the flow of the North Vietnamese troops and supplies, but all I knew was a life lived among a cratered and savaged landscape, where I would eavesdrop into my father’s conversations with neighbors who had lost their children to the bombs.

I was 11 years old when my life changed forever. On a hot summer day in 1975, my father came home from his job where he worked in diplomacy and community development for USAID. My father could speak four languages, but not one of them could save him or us from what was about to happen in Laos. Without greeting my sisters and me as he passed, my father pulled my mother away from us to where they could speak privately. When my parents came out of the room they were talking in, they never told us what was going on. Instead, we went about our normal routines while my father watched with a face soaked in a lifetime of emotions. That evening still haunts me.

The next day, we found out that the Laos People’s Revolutionary Party had taken over our country and our King had been forced to abdicate. The People’s Revolutionary Party started rounding up anyone who was a threat to them and sent them to “seminars” which they said would re-educate and advance Laos into a stronger and unified country under their rule.

My family was on borrowed time as my father was labeled an “imperialist slave,” and we represented everything this new government hated. Quickly, my father found an official he could bribe to get us to Thailand and into the U.N. Refugee camps. I don’t know how much he paid, but the next morning we were gathering up what supplies and food we would take with us, our hope resting on this hasty promise—the promise that became a threat to our very lives.

Soldiers burst through our door with machine guns and started beating and hitting my mother. My father fought with the ferocity of ten men, but without a gun he was quickly overtaken and tied up. Yet, he kept trying to get to us. Over and over again, he would wrench free of his ropes to attack one of them, and over and over again they would beat him almost to death and tie him to a chair.

My sisters and I were pulled to the side and forced to watch my mother be raped by each soldier. My father had to watch it, too, and whatever fight was left in him suddenly fell away. When the last soldier was done with my mother, one of the soldiers went up behind my father’s chair where he was bound and shot him in the head. I can still hear my mother’s scream every time I lay down to sleep at night.

They grabbed my mother up from the floor where she was rocking back and forth with no clothes on, threw a blanket on her, and marched us out of the house and were taken to a type of jail in one of the re-education camps, which was the worst as it was under the ground where we couldn’t see the sun or breathe any air that wasn’t putrid and foul.

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From 1975 to 1979 we toiled underground. We worked constructing sawmills and cutting bamboo. We did whatever they told us, repeated what they had taught us, gave thanks to each of them for how they opened our eyes to their way of thinking. Each night, my sisters and I huddled together with our mother and tried to believe we would find a way to escape. We had no money to bribe anyone, and my mother was barely able to shuffle around.

My sisters who were 13 and 15 by this time, took over my parenting. I cannot remember how many times we were beaten, but my oldest sister Akela was noticed by several of the soldiers and she too had to endure what my mother did. But Akela was strong. Her name means “noble” and she lives through its meaning. She refused to cower and would not let them take her mind even if they had the power to take her body. She told me and my sister that life may lead us in a direction we do not always foresee, but if we are to survive the tragedies that we may experience then we must grasp onto fate and own it as we move forward. This powerful lesson has been my guide through many years.

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In 1978, my sister had a baby boy we named Keowynn which means “God’s gracious gift.” Once he was born, my mother slowly started to take an interest in us again and became almost fanatical about watching over Keowynn. Here was the boy my father dreamed of and wanted so many years ago.

I don’t know what Akela did, but somehow in 1979, she arranged our escape into Thailand. As we left, Keowynn was strapped onto my sister’s back so we could safely carry him over the Mekong River into Thailand.

The Mekong River is known for its unexpected, swift currents, and none of us had ever had the chance to learn how to swim. A strong current came at us from nowhere and Akela was swept under for only a few seconds. I saw what happened in front of me but was too little to give my sister strength.

A mother’s love—even in its cracked shell—is a powerful thing to behold. As we were being thrust under and fighting to get out of the river and to my sister, my mother reached five feet beyond what physics would tell you is impossible, and got a handful of my sister’s hair to pull her up. We finally staggered out of the whirlwind of that incredibly strong current only to realize that the sling we had fashioned for her back to hold 9-month-old Keowynn was empty. He had slipped into the water with no sound, swallowed by the last remnant of Laos we ever saw, the Mekong River.

In our agony, Akela’s weeping was the heaviest. But in the majesty of her broken heart, she spoke the words she taught us in the underground. She said we must remember that fate leads us in a direction, and we must own it if we wish to keep living. So, we did. We moved forward shirking from the darkness of the tragedy and looked up towards our future to see what it might be.

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We finally reached the refugee camp, but conditions weren’t much better. We were so poor and so hungry all the time, and we witnessed daily acts of violence. Still, we were together. When I was 16, I met the boy who later became the man I married. His name was Saengchanh and he reminded me of my father so much in spirit. He was noble, kind, and strong, and yet so compassionate. He still believed in the good in the world when joy had left my family long ago, and best of all, he made us laugh.

It wasn’t until 1981 that we were able to finally get an official document created by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) which was placed inside a large white bag marked “IOM” (International Organization for Migration). We could leave. Our immediate family now consisted of my six-week-old baby boy named Kham (meaning “precious” or “gold”), my two sisters, my mother, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and husband. We made the journey on a refugee resettlement boat.

Unfortunately, the horrors of our path clung to us tightly. We watched many people being murdered, and I, a nursing mother, was beaten and raped. By grace, my husband wasn’t killed. In fact, no one in my family was killed during the trip.

We were in the second or third wave of refugees and we worked closely with the Americans, who finally assigned us to Catholic Charities in Richmond, Virginia.

Catholic Charities was a beacon of hope. They gave us housing and $200 dollars a month to purchase groceries. We were assigned a kind counselor who taught us how to spend the $200 in the grocery store to make it last—and I still smile when I think about how we taught her how $200 for groceries can last for two months. You must simply buy what usually isn’t bought, and eat sparingly, which we learned to do through the harsh years of our past.

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A funny thing happened to Akela when we got to the United States. She started slipping away from us in body and spirit. It was as if she had been strong for as long as she could, and once we were safe, she retreated into her past. She no longer owned her own fate but rather it pulled her under, like the waves of the Mekong River which took her son.

My mother did become whole again, or as she tells us, as whole as she can be with her soul residing in the past and her heart in the present. My other sister, Vatsana had escaped bodily harm to herself, but mentally endured every beating and rape we all experienced. On the whole, she has grasped her own fate and moved forward by marrying and having a lively family of five. My mother beams with joy every time they come over for holidays or when she visits (which is often).

My husband and myself opened up a nail salon in Richmond, Virginia in 1988, and have since expanded our business to include several stores, salons, and even a hotel. I had another baby when I was 23, and both my children have finished their education in Ivy League colleges. I never had the chance to learn in school after I was 11, but I have learned a lot about life.

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I have learned that you can win if you don’t fear fate, and that death is less of an end, and more of a returning. Tragedies that happen can be overcome by taking them and making them yours. Real love stories never have endings, even after death. And finally, I learned fear gives two choices. One is to forget everything and run away, and the other…is to face fear and rise. Everyone has that choice, no matter their circumstance.

 

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This is the story of Kim Manda

Kim was born during the violent times of the Vietnam War, and later the Laos People’s Revolutionary Party. When she was just 11, her father was beaten and murdered in front of her, while her mother and sisters were forced into underground “re-education” camps. In the dark times of Kim’s childhood, her older sister encouraged her to take ahold of their fate. This sentiment is what kept their family looking forward.

Kim now lives in Richmond, Virginia with her family after years of refugeeism. She and her husband now own their own business. Kim doesn’t like what she calls ‘idle’ time because in quiet times, the voices and memories are loudest. But she does enjoy painting, something that she started as art therapy but has progressed to works of creative expression and artistic beauty. She loves to cook for all her family and extended family members and once a week she and her husband still have date night. They no longer have kids in the house to have to get alone time together outside the house, but they still honor the tradition they started so many years ago as it allows them to pay attention to the spirit and needs of each other.

Kim's family (kim is on the far left)
Kim (on the far left) with her family.

 

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This story first touched our hearts on November 14, 2018.

| Writer: Samantha Seconds | Editor: Colleen Walker |

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