Illustrations & Narratives
3Dimensions: 8 x 5
In My Former Life As It Happened in the Past in Xieng Khouang
1. My village used to have hills and forests and houses along the side of the rice fields. Everyone had rice fields and buffalo and cows. We earned our livelihoods with happy hearts. We always helped each other to build the progress of our upland and lowland rice fields, with cooperation. But then came the airplanes to strike. To strike at our houses until they were completely lost. Until we had no place to stay. And we were afraid. Because the planes came almost every day without exception. It was as if we were in jail. We couldn't go anywhere. All we could do was sit in the mouths of the holes.
2. And still there were people who were killed. In the forest and in the rice fields. Every single day. Everyday at least once you heard of someone being killed. They would die and then we would put them in a box in order to take them to be burned in the forest.
3. In part three. We couldn't put them in boxes anymore, just take them and put them into a hole because we had no more wood. We just dug a hole in the foot of the hill and buried them.This is what I think about the people who died in this region. They died like animals die in the forest. Because they went to shoot everyday without exception. Therefore we were afraid and didn't have enough courage to do right. Someone died and we just took him and dumped him and ran back very fast. Some people were not even buried. They were just dumped in a box.
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About the Illustrations
The illustrations and narratives were collected between December 1970 and May 1971 in the Vientiane refugee camps, where U.S. bombings victims fled. The drawings and narratives represent the voiceless, faceless and nameless who endured an air war campaign perpetuated in secrecy. Drawn primarily in pencil, pens, crayons and markers, they are raw and stark, reflecting the crude events that shaped their reality. The simplicity of the narration and drawings emphasize the illustrators, not as artists or writers, but ordinary villagers who bore witness to a devastating event.
Each of the illustrations demonstrates the violence of warfare. However, the images of blood and death are contradicted by the memories of the scenic and peaceful village life these survivors once lived. Scenes show farmers tending to their rice fields, monks praying at the temple, women going to the market and children playing in the schoolyard. The drawings reveal that these memories of their simple and peaceful life are abruptly halted as they become tarnished with violence, death and loss. They capture the very moments when their lives and society were forever altered.
The illustrations and narratives will be accompanied by historical photos, maps and other relevant documents to give context to the decade-long bombings.
One survivor, a 33-year old man writes, “In the area of Xieng Khoang, the place of my birth, there was health, good earth and fine weather. But then the airplanes came, bombing the rice fields and the forests, making us leave our land and rice fields with great sadness. One day a plane came bombing my rice field as well as the village. I had gone very early to harrow the field. I thought, “I am only a village rice farmer, the airplane will not shoot me.” But that day truly it did shoot me and wounded me together with my buffalo, which was the source of a hundred thousand loves and a hundred thousand worries for me.”
An 18-year old woman remembers, “In the year 1967, my village built small shelters in the forest and we had holes in the bamboo thicket on top of the hill. It was a place to which we could flee. But there were two brothers who went out to cut wood in the forest. The airplanes shot them and both brothers died. Their mother and father had just these two sons and were both in the same hole with me. I think with much pity about this old father and mother who were like crazy people because their children had died.”
Another victim, a 37-year old woman, reflects, “Our lives became like those of animals desperately trying to escape their hunters…Human beings, whose parents brought them into the world and carefully raised them with overflowing love despite so many difficulties, these human beings would die from a single blast as explosions burst, lying still without moving again at all. And who then thinks of the blood, flesh, sweat and strength of their parents, and who will have charity and pity for them?…In reality, whatever happens, it is only the innocent who suffer. And as for other men, do they know all the unimaginable things happening in this war?”
Twenty-Five Years and a Chance Meeting
A most unlikely connection led to the reemergence of the 30-year old drawings. The “recovery” of these illustrations is a story in itself. As told by Channapha Khamvongsa:
“I was working at the Ford Foundation in the fall of 2003, when I went to Washington D.C. for a meeting with one of Ford’s grantees, the Institute for Policy Studies. In attendance was John Cavanagh, the Executive Director. John asked me what the origin of my name was. When I told him it was Laotian, he immediately exclaimed, “It’s really terrible what happened in the Plain of Jars!” Of course, I was shocked. After all, it seemed most Americans didn’t even know where Laos was, let alone, the specific region of Xieng Khoang, one of the most heavily bombed provinces. So, I inquired furthered about his familiarity with the secret U.S. bombings in Laos. As it turns out, John had worked alongside Fred Branfman in the 1970s at the Indochina Resource Center, a policy think-tank working to stop the bombings in Southeast Asia. When the office closed down, John was cleaning out the office and came across the illustrations. With a sense that the drawings were important, he decided to hold on to them. As John and I came to this remarkable connection, John told me that he had some illustrations drawn by survivors of the U.S. bombings.”
These historical documents had been sitting in John Cavanagh’s DC office for the last quarter-century! And in a remarkable twist of fate, John met a Laotian-American decades after the war and in a context far from the Vietnam War-era. In spring 2004, John turned over the illustrations to Channapha, with the hopes that she would, “do something with them.” And hence, began Legacies of War.