Behind Laos's yellow rain and tears

A controversial Radiolab episode opens old wounds and raises countless questions for Minnesota's Hmong

Yang was tasked with operating this radio and using it to report to Thai officials. So one day, around March 1978, when he heard from the resistance headquarters that three Hmong camps had been attacked, he went to investigate.

"I had been trained to be a reporter and a recorder of what was happening to my people," Yang says. "The rule was for me to be as diligent as I could."

When Yang arrived at the first village, it had been a day or two since the attack, but he could still see yellow spots on the leaves. The largest were the size of corn kernels, and the smallest were like round rice grains.

A team of Hmong resistance fighters returned to Laos to look for samples of yellow rain. Here, they present their findings to a Ban Vinai camp leader, the man in the blue blazer. Eng Yang stands to the right.
courtesy of Fred
A team of Hmong resistance fighters returned to Laos to look for samples of yellow rain. Here, they present their findings to a Ban Vinai camp leader, the man in the blue blazer. Eng Yang stands to the right.
Fred inspects slides of his photos from Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in the 1980s
Olivia LaVecchia
Fred inspects slides of his photos from Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in the 1980s

Yang started interviewing people, and they told him that this yellow stuff on the leaves was what was making them sick. He remembers them vomiting, and washing their skin with opium to dull the pain.

Yang had been trained as a medic during the war and through the years treated case after case of dysentery and cholera. What he was seeing in these people wasn't that, he was sure.

"The first time I saw people suffering, I knew it was different from anything I had seen before," Yang says. "These symptoms together was all new for us."

So he looked more closely at the yellow drops. "It was clear to me that it wasn't part of a liquid explosion from some bullet," he remembers. "It wasn't bee poop, either."

When he reported what he had seen to the Thai, they told him to cover his mouth and his nose with wet cloths on future investigations.

Not long after the first few incidents, "so many reports started coming in," Yang says. He guesses that he reported about two attacks per month for the next year. Yang trusted the people he was interviewing when they said they got sick following the yellow rain attacks. But he couldn't be certain a chemical was poisoning his people.

"I believed," Yang says, "but I didn't have the ability to test, so I couldn't say for sure."

In 1979, Yang finally fled the jungle, swimming across the Mekong River to seek refuge in Thailand. Once over the border, he was eventually sent to Ban Vinai Refugee Camp.

It was the largest refugee camp in Thailand, a teeming city of more than 40,000 that had sprouted up in 1975. The grounds were packed with newly minted refugees beginning the process of creating a new life for themselves, as well as Thai and U.S. officials, United Nations workers, and aid groups of all kinds.

When Yang first got there, the camp had no sanitation or public health. But a year later, an American volunteer, Fred (not his real name) arrived. Fred had served as a medic in Vietnam, and soon returned to the region. He never left. Now, decades later, he continues to work there, and so prefers to use an alias when discussing yellow rain.

In 1980, as Fred went about procuring a pump truck to empty latrines that had been full for two years, organizing the camp's bamboo heath clinics, and generally trying to improve operations, he started hearing about something the Hmong called chemi — yellow rain.

By 1982, after a brief stint back home in Minnesota, Fred returned to the camp. The Chemical Biological Weapons Information Project hired him to interview Hmong who said they had experienced yellow rain attacks. Over the next two years, Fred reported on over 100 cases.

New groups of refugees arrived once or twice per month, and if they knew of yellow rain, camp leaders referred them to Fred. He split them up, questioned them individually, recorded their responses on a form, and filed it.

"They were shy, sometimes afraid, to talk to a Westerner," Fred remembers. "Sometimes they'd never seen one before."

Many of them described nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and in severe cases, hemorrhages and death. Some of them could recall the particular fixed-wing planes they had seen just prior to the attack, and when Fred showed them pictures of several aircraft models, he says that a majority pointed at the same one.

Fred was no doctor, but he had seen his share of diseases — both as a medic during the war and later when setting up Ban Vinai's public health operation. When the people he was interviewing told him their symptoms, though, the accounts didn't match any illness with which Fred was familiar.

The only signs he could see for himself were lingering rashes, which victims blamed on the chemi. Fred remembers these as odd.

"They were unusual-looking, and startling," he says. "You couldn't diagnose it quickly. It wasn't scabies, even infected scabies."

Fred never interviewed Eng Yang, but the two met and became friendly. One day, Yang remembers, an American woman gave out a pamphlet with a person in a gas mask on the front cover. Inside were photos of people with rashes. Their skin looked exactly like what Yang had seen on his neighbors' bodies back in Laos.

"That's when I knew it was yellow rain, a chemical," Yang recalls. "My heart had always believed, but now I had no more questions."


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