Days before Thailand forcibly repatriated 4,500 ethnic Hmong to Laos this week, MaoKao Thao of St. Paul called his terrified brother at a refugee camp.
"He cried so much because he was going back to Laos," said 58-year-old Thao, who fought alongside American troops during the Vietnam War. "He got nightmares that if he went back to Laos he would be tortured or killed."
Thailand deported about 4,350 Hmong from a camp in Thailand's northern Phetchabun province on Monday. Another group of 158 Hmong were removed from a detention center in nearby Nong Khai whom the United Nations had already identified as "being in need of protection."
The deportations sent waves of concern through the Hmong communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin, as families tried to get news of loved ones who have been sent back to Laos and a government most Hmong-Americans view as an enemy.
Thao said his brother, Chakhee Thao, 40, his brother's wife and one of their children had been staying at the camp. His niece and nephew had been held at the detention center because, he said, they had testified about alleged atrocities against Hmong women and children by Lao and Vietnamese mercenaries in 2006.
MaoKao Thao said he was worried that the Laotian government would punish all of his brother's family.
"For the last two nights, I could not sleep," he said through a translator.
MaoKao Thao said he hadn't heard from his brother or his brother's family since the deportation.
The Hmong have sought asylum for decades following their alliance with the U.S. during the Vietnam War. The repatriation from Thailand has all but ended that quest. The United States and human rights groups have said the Hmong could be in danger in Laos.
After the Vietnam War, large numbers of Hmong from Laos were resettled in the United States, with the majority moving to Minnesota, Wisconsin and California.
MaoKao Thao said he fought with the Americans in 1962, then fled to Thailand with one of his brothers, Xao Thao. The two left Thailand for the U.S. in 1989, eventually settling in St. Paul. Chakhee Thao stayed behind and neither brother has seen him since, although they spoke regularly through cell phones in the camps.
Xao Thao said he fears he won't see his younger brother again. "History proves that many people deported to Laos disappear," he said.
It's an observation shared by many resettled Hmong, said Pao Vang, director of the Hmong American Community Association in Menomonie, Wis. "Those who have been deported in the past, you can't find them."
He said the Hmong he knows in Wisconsin don't believe the assurances of the Lao government that those being repatriated from Thailand will be treated well. "They just lie," he said. "They will persecute them one by one."
Ilean Her, executive director of Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans, was more optimistic. She said her elderly uncle, who had been living in one of the camps, called a relative in the United States on Monday to say he was safe in Laos.
He was told that the Lao government would take care of the Hmong's basic needs for one year and make them legal residents, a first step toward them obtaining travel visas. "My dad's actually hopeful," she said.
Hubert Shouayeng, president of the World Hmong Congress in St. Paul, who translated for the Thao brothers, said the deportations are the talk of the Hmong community in Minnesota, which the state estimates at about 65,000.
Shouayeng said his advocacy group has been trying to get information about those who have been repatriated but that he so far has not been able to learn more than what's been reported by journalists - and they were kept miles from camps on Monday.
Shouayeng urged the United States, the United Nations and the international community to investigate what has happened to the Hmong who were returned. Laos on Wednesday denied the U.N. immediate access to repatriated Hmong, saying it would "complicate" matters but that international observers could visit later.
Politicians in Minnesota and Wisconsin have also weighed in. U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken of Minnesota and Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin have issued a joint statement saying they "strongly condemn" the decision to send the Hmong back to Laos.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)