On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Escape From Laos
When the communist Pathet Lao took over the country late in 1975, in the same year that the bloody war in Viet Nam had finally ended, the citizens of Laos held their collective breath about what kind of government would emerge. Would it be a mostly pragmatic change of ideology and political alliances such as had happened in Viet Nam? Or would it be a reign of terror and unspeakable retribution similar to the carnage in Cambodia that was spawned by the murderous Pol Pot, and continued until he was defeated? All people in Laos had a lot on the line.
It is never fair or completely accurate to generalize about the nature and climate of change after war; and when a national government falls to bitter, armed enemies. Fortunately, the docile nature of most Laos permitted a transition from war to peace that did not include the horrors witnessed by the world in Cambodia. That is not to say that when the Communists took over in 1975, lives were not changed forever. They were. This simple chronicle is about an entire family that escaped the Pathet Lao and became refugees. The overarching reasons for abandoning everything have not yet been revealed; suffice it to say that they were life changing and irreversible.
For the family of Long Tran and his wife Xuan Thi Nguyen, the plan to escape Laos meant leaving their homes, their jobs, their community of friends; and never returning again. It also meant entering a new world where the customs and languages were going to be different. But before those challenges could predominate in their thinking, there was the immediate problem of how to safely escape with all of their children and in-laws. In all, Long Tran and Xuan Thi Nguyen had ten children to consider; and the husbands of their two oldest daughters, both of whom were married and pregnant at that time. Long Tran and his wife Xuan then devised a bold plan to lead everyone to freedom. Why is it that the Footloose Forester knows so much about their story? Because he was privileged to meet all of them in Switzerland, some years after their escape. Indeed, they are part of his extended family. Thus this true story continues.
Planners and leaders of the escape
When the Pathet Lao came to power, the communist officials came to Long Tran and designated him as a community representative, due in part to his ethnic affiliations with the Vietnamese community and his prominent, cohesive family structure. The designation as a community representative was not the result of an election, it was an order from the Communist Party.
Long and Xuan used his position to engineer an escape during the height of the rainy monsoon season. All twelve family members and two in-laws were going to escape together, but in discrete groups to avoid attracting attention. The two oldest girls (Thanh and Binh) departed with their husbands in one group; Long and Xuan took seven of the children (Lien, Kieu, Hanh, Dung, Son, Chi and Linh) with them; and son Hoa went alone.
It was a full day’s walk to the Mekong River, but with young children in tow, the escape route across the river into Thailand was even more perilous. At the time of the escape attempt, the ages of the children ranged considerably. Daughter Thanh was 24; daughter Binh was 22; son Hoa, who went alone, was 20; son Dung was 18; daughter Kieu was 16; third son named Son was 14; daughter Hanh was 13; daughter Lien was 10; daughter Chi was 7 or 8; and the youngest child, son Linh, was only 5 years old at the time.
Clockwise, from center: Xuan and Long; Binh; Hoa; Thanh; Lien; Kieu; Hanh; Chi; Linh and Son; Dung
Today, all of the children of Long and Xaun live active, productive lives in the vicinity of Luzern, Switzerland. The photo above, taken after all of them had reached adulthood, shows the family surrounding their now deceased father and still surviving mother. All of the children still maintain a close relationship with their mother and often join her for Sunday dinner.