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Lao Photographer Describes Attack by Troops on Hmong Children

Lao Hmong grieve next to the bodies of children allegedly killed by Lao troops. Photo: Va Cha Yang

WASHINGTON—The Lao Hmong refugee who documented an alleged massacre of five Hmong children by Lao troops has described in detail how the children were attacked and raped by Lao troops before he returned and photographed their mutilated bodies.

In a lengthy interview with RFA’s Lao service, Va Cha Yang, a merchant who smuggled video footage of the children’s bodies out of Laos, rejected claims by the Lao government that the video was fabricated.

“I would like to insist that the event really happened, and I can tell you that I am ready to take officials from various organizations to check the site..."

Va Cha Yang, a merchant who smuggled video footage of the children’s bodies out of Laos

“I would like to insist that the event really happened, and I can tell you that I am ready to take officials from various organizations to check the site where Lao soldiers raped and murdered the four young Hmong girls and one boy,” Va Cha Yang, 38, said. “If, after the inspection, there is no truth to the whole thing, I ask that the whole world punishes me alone.”

The massacre occurred on May 19, between 7 and 8 a.m., he said. “It happened on the day when we went out to dig up bamboo shoots and roots for food preparation near the foot of the Me Nam Muak Mountain. We were divided into two groups—there were 20 of us altogether,” Va Cha Yang said.

Surprise attack

“The first group was made up of 12 people including the four young girls and the one boy who were killed. The second group that I was in had eight people. We were walking 100 meters behind the first group. We were all walking past a big tree, using a path that was slightly cleared, when suddenly a group of Lao soldiers appeared and surrounded the group. At the same time, gunshots were heard all over,” Va Cha Yang said.

"...we could hear their crying and screams… As for the soldiers, they chased and grabbed the young girls."

Va Cha Yang

“Our group, still 100 meters back, was shocked. We hit the dirt rapidly and then quickly ran back to where we had started from. From the leading group of 12, we could hear their crying and screams… As for the soldiers, they chased and grabbed the young girls. Laughing, they cried out, ‘Girls, girls,’ then started to rape them like animals,” he said. “There were about 30 to 40 soldiers.”

“Amidst the gunshots and the cries and screams from the children, our group of eight first hid in the dirt and then ran back to our camp. It took us 15 minutes to get there. Then along with two or three of our own soldiers, I ran back to the site. This time I took the video recorder with me,” he said.

Previous arrests

“When we got to the site, the Lao communist soldiers were no longer there. As for the four young girls and the one young boy, their bodies lay on the ground in a very pitiful manner. Some had their entrails pulled out and left in piles next to their bodies. When I saw this, I was upset and so shaken that I almost could not take any pictures,” Va Cha Yang said.

Va Cha Yang, who is Hmong, had been hiding in the area since June 2003, after escorting two Western journalists into Xaysomboun Province to document a Hmong insurgency there. He was arrested on June 5, 2003, one day after the two journalists, Thierry Falise and Vincent Reynaud, were taken into custody. Falise and Reynaud were expelled on July 9, 2003, after receiving 15-year prison sentences for weapons possession and obstruction of justice. Two Lao military officers beat Va Cha Yang unconscious and held him for two days, then released him on June 7, 2003, he said.

Official denials

Falise and Reynaud’s footage was confiscated, but the two men had left one video camera behind with Hmong rebel leader Moua Toua Ter, he said. Falise and Reynaud “were very touched by what they say and they felt pity for the people who live there,” Va Cha Yang said. “So they gave the camera to Moua Toua Ter so that he could record when the soldiers come to attack their camp.” Va Cha Yang fled to the rebel group after his release, and it was this video camera that he used to document the children’s bodies on May 19, he said.

Va Cha Yang said he remained in hiding in Xaysomboun Province for one month before fleeing with his footage to Thailand. Va Cha Yang was detained on suspicion of selling goods to the Hmong rebels from 1997-99 but was never charged, he said. While in custody he kept busy by cooking for his jailers and for the other inmates, and he said that it was perhaps because he was known for this that he was released quickly in 2003.

“Hostile news reporting and footage presented in foreign press were created for the purpose of slandering the Lao government..."

Lao military official quoted in The Vientiane Times

Lao official media this week quoted Lao army investigators as saying the alleged massacre was fabricated. The Vientiane Times cited Colonel Bouaxieng Champaphan, deputy director of the Lao People’s Army general staff department, as saying the alleged attack never took place.

“Hostile news reporting and footage presented in foreign press were created for the purpose of slandering the Lao government and dividing the state of solidarity among people within the country,” it quoted him as saying. Bouaxieng also “reaffirmed that Lao soldiers would not do such a thing,” it said.

Amnesty International says it has evidence confirming the alleged mutilation and massacre of unarmed children, aged between 13 and 16. Four of the five were girls and were also raped, it said.

“The attacks violate the most fundamental principles of international human rights and humanitarian law. These rapes and killings constitute war crimes,” the London-based human rights group said. “The Lao authorities must, as a matter of utmost urgency, permit UN agencies and independent monitors unfettered access to those rebels.”

‘Serious abuses’

In its 2003 human rights report, the U.S. State Department said the Lao government’s human rights record “was poor and it continued to commit serious abuses.”

“Members of the security forces abused detainees, especially those suspected of insurgent or anti-government activity. Heightened insurgent activity and the government's response resulted in scores of civilian casualties during the year. Prisoners were sometimes abused and tortured, and prison conditions generally were extremely harsh and life threatening. Police used arbitrary arrest, detention, and surveillance,” it said.

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