An Idyllic Childhood And A Painful Awakening
By Renee Westmoreland
Not long before my seventh birthday, in August 1970, my family moved to Laos. My dad worked for the government, and we had just spent two years on the island of Cyprus.
The country was a mystery to me, but my parents were eager travelers, keen to soak up the culture. To learn about the country that would be our home for three years, we were shown movies of life in the Laotian countryside. Wood houses on stilts with thatched roofs, water buffalo wading through rice paddies, smiling children on bicycles, and women in wide hats carrying loaded baskets hanging from poles slung across their shoulders.
In Laos, we moved into a one-story, cinder block home with jalousie windows and a yard full of banana trees. We lived on the American compound known as KM-6 with 100 or so other families. It was guarded and surrounded by a big fence with barbed wire on the top. At first, I didn’t know why the steel-spiked fence was there at all. Indeed, my awareness that there was a war going on in the region, with fighting only three kilometers away, was vague and distant.
Vientiane was a sleepy village and life in Laos was idyllic. Aside from classes at the American School of Vientiane (ASV), we kids ran free throughout the compound, ferried around by our eager band of pony companions. We had a swim team and even occasionally took trips to Bangkok to compete with kids from the International School of Bangkok (ISB) and the other various international school teams that would meet there. On weekends, we went into town to go to the PX and the morning market to shop. We took vacations to Pattaya, a once-quiet beach town in Thailand, where we rented boats to go snorkeling in the pristine waters of the Gulf of Thailand.
I occasionally heard people talk about Air America pilots and air bases in Long Tieng and Udorn. We sometimes traveled in military aircraft, like Caribou transports or helicopters. I knew my grandmother and parents’ friends back home worried about us when they read the newspaper stories about the Vietnam War. They knew we were not far from the fighting, but they had no idea how close we really were. Still, as a child, I was shielded from the reality of the war and loved our life there.
In 1973, we left Laos and spent three years in Bangkok before heading back to the U.S. for good. In 1975, we heard that any Americans still in Laos had to leave. The country had fallen to communist forces – the Pathet Lao that we sometimes heard about. I had always been made to understand that we were in Laos to protect the country from the communists – that we were there to “help.”
Forty years later, in 2015, a group of 80 former ASV students and teachers returned to Vientiane for a reunion. For most of us, it was the first time we would see the country as adults. I was thrilled to be back. The sights and smells of my childhood came rushing back like a sensory tsunami. The Mekong was as magnificent as ever, and while Vientiane had some shiny new hotels and buildings, much of it was the same.
We enjoyed the night market, the beautiful watts, and we were treated to a night of Lao dancing and music followed by a Baci! I hadn’t had those wonderful strings of good wishes around my wrists since I was 10 years old. It was a real homecoming.
We were permitted to visit the old KM-6 compound, which had become the headquarters for the now fully-fledged communist party in Laos. The trip down Lang Xang Avenue took us past the Patuxai Victory Gate, which, along with That Luang, was emblazoned in my memory. At KM-6, we were permitted into a small part of the compound after an “education session” and a tour of the nearby Kaysone Phomvihane Museum. The compound was much the same as it was all those years ago and we were permitted into one of the little cinder block houses that were so familiar to us all.
On the way back to the bus, my sister and I encountered a sugar cane vendor. We were like little kids again! Out of all the sentimental satisfactions we’d been treated to all day, nothing had felt more like Laos to us than that baggie full of sweet chunks of sugar cane to suck on.
Following our visit in Vientiane, a smaller group of us traveled around the country. We flew to Luang Prabang, then to Xieng Khouang, and from there traveled by bus to Vang Vieng, back to Vientiane, and then on to Pakse and Savannahket. I saw more of Laos than I had ever had the chance to see while living there. As one can imagine, the kind of traveling I was able to enjoy then wasn’t possible during the war.
While I had become more educated about the reality of the bombing of Laos over the years, it wasn’t until we visited Xieng Khouang and the Plain of Jars that the magnitude of that bombing became horrifyingly clear. The deadly and flawed mission, the lack of understanding or compassion toward the country and its people, the barbarous use of cluster bombs, and the violent toll that those very same explosives take to this day – it all hit me in a wave of horror, grief, but also guilt. I was not even a teenager during the secret war on Laos, but as an American I feel the weight of responsibility and am compelled to do what I can to clear the munitions that continue to pose such a grave danger to the beautiful country where I spent some of the best years of my childhood.
It was later that year that I attended a benefit for the removal of UXO in Laos – a night of fashion, food, music, and comedy – which introduced me to Legacies of War. Channapha Khamvongsa gave an inspiring and rousing speech, and I knew I’d found a cause that was destined to become dear to my heart. After contributing periodically, I had the opportunity to meet Sera Koulabdara in New York and I gained a deeper understanding of the scope of the work; I soon joined the Lam Vong Circle so that I could ensure my ongoing support. While it may be just a drop in the bucket, I’m proud to do my part to reverse the harm caused to the beautiful, welcoming, and peaceful country that I was lucky to call my home for a short time.
Images courtesy Renee Westmoreland