National Geographic : 1974 Jan
-a gift from the spirits, who loom large in every aspect of Hmong life. More than 120,000 Hmong refugees, Pop told me, now depend upon American supplies for survival. Most live in lowland jungle ghet tos. They suffer from tropical diseases against which their mountain-dwelling past provides no immunity. With the Pathet Lao control ling at least two-thirds of the land area, the Hmong truly have no place to run. For several reasons-including clan divi sions and political rivalries that stemmed from French colonial days-Hmong fought on both sides in the struggle for nominally neutral Laos. Some 100,000 cast their lot with the Communist-led Pathet Lao; the remain ing 250,000 sided with the pro-Western Royal Lao Government forces. 30,000 Hmong Dead in 14-year War In the late 1950's, when trouble loomed, people like the superstitious old chief at Nam Phet naturally looked to the spirit world for help. Messianic myths spread through the hills. One prophesied that Christ would come to the Hmong in a jeep, wearing American clothes and handing out modern weapons. No savior came, but the weapons did. The Soviet Union and China supplied the Pathet Lao Hmong and the North Vietnam ese reinforced them. The U. S. Central Intel ligence Agency armed and advised a secret army-mostly Hmong-that supported the government. For 14 years warfare ebbed and flowed through their homeland. In the end, America's Hmong allies lost. In the debris of defeat 30,000 Hmong lay dead; the survivors had been driven from their homes. In one province not a village still stands. To translate the disaster into American terms, imagine a holocaust that wiped out 18,000,000 of us and forced the remainder of the population to flee to Mexico. "Toward the end, 10- and 12-year-olds were sent out to fight," Pop Buell told me. "They didn't live long enough to learn fear." When I first met the Hmong 13 years ago, they still lived in relative peace. The roadless isolation of Laos's mountain jungles created a cultural deep freeze where customs changed slowly. A score of primitive peoples lived in the foothills, but if you endured the climb to the ridges and peaks above 5,000 feet, you found only the "kings of the mountains" the Hmong. A few thousand feet of vertical movement "Pocketa-pocketa" goes the umbrella for a Hmong boy playing helicopter with his mother's sunshade. Until the past few years, umbrellas were one of the Hmong woman's few store-bought luxuries. They remain her basic cosmetic aid, since fair skin confers status-especially over the darker Lao Theung, whom the Hmong consider inferior.