The Smile on His Face

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Sep 2 2008

A personal high point for me was the dinner in which we thanked Bouangeun Luangpraseuth, my old friend “Ngeun”, for having risked his freedom to bring out the drawings and essays of life under the bombing, which lie at the heart of Legacies of War. I had met Ngeun, a former Pathet Lao medic, cadre and soldier, when he became one of the refugees from the Plain of Jars in September 1969, and we became friends. One day I said to him, “You know, Ngeun, it’s a pity the refugees can’t read and write. They would have quite a story to tell.” “Hwai!,” he replied, offended by my ignorance, “they can read and write better than you can”. “Really?” I said. “Do you think you could ask them to write their stories and draw pictures of their lives during the bombing?” He agreed, hiding the material under his shirt as he went through police checkpoints to get them to me. Channapha had read something about the bombing. But it was not until she saw the drawings 35 years later through a chance meeting through a chance meeting that she was moved to begin Legacies of War.

We invited Ngeun to a dinner to thank him. It was touching to realize that he had probably never been thanked or applauded in his life, not only for collecting the essays and drawings, but for all the other sacrifices he had made on behalf of a cause in which he so deeply believed.

Channapha stood up, explained to Ngeun the importance of his work, and thanked him. Sakuna gave him some gifts, including a Legacies T-shirt. We all applauded him. Ngeun was clearly touched and happy. He began to smile.

I then stood up and told the following story, which Vivi translated into his ear. “I met Ngeun when he was 25, and we became roommates. One night in the early morning hours, as we talked, I asked him what he wanted out of all this. He answered, “You know, Phouvieng (“mountain of Vientiane”, my Lao name), I’ve almost been killed over a dozen times already, and I don’t expect to live until 30. But all I want is that some day, after I am gone, when villagers from the Plain of Jars are sitting around and talking about the old days, maybe someone will bring up my name. And maybe someone will say, “Oh, yes, Ngeun! He was a good man. He loved the people.'”

As I told this story I choked up and could not continue for a few moments. This was not propaganda or sloganeering, you see. This was two friends talking late at night, and there was no doubt in my mind that he meant every word, totally and sincerely. I continued, “I knew Ngeun meant it. I knew Ngeun loved the people. And I want you to know, Ngeun, that I love you.” At that point our friends began cheering and applauding again, some with tears in their eyes as well.

But what struck me most was Ngeun. He was looking at me, smiling deeply and genuinely and lovingly, in a way that I had not seen since we were young. For a moment the years, pain, disappointments and betrayals faded away, and it all felt like it had been worth it.

I will never forget the smile on his face that night. Whatever else happens on this trip, it will be engraved in my heart until the end of my days.