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War in Laos echoes in robbery spree; Hmong thought they left violence behind in move to America; cultural gaps exposed

By: JAMES H. BURNETT III of the Journal Sentinel staff, April 9, 2002 Tuesday BODY:

Yeng Xiong knows what it's like to live in a war zone.

Three decades ago, as a 9-year-old living in the mountains of Laos, Xiong fought along with hundreds of other children during the Vietnam War. He didn't completely understand the conflict; what he knew was how to use an M-16 assault rifle and a sack full of grenades.

Xiong made it through the war relatively unscathed. He never suffered a serious injury until adulthood, after immigrating in 1992 nearly 8,000 miles to Milwaukee and opening a retail store.

In just the past five years or so, Xiong has racked up about $100,000 in medical bills from a number of beatings he received at the hands of robbers in his Superior Oriental Store, 2729 W. Vliet St.

Xiong's experience is not isolated. Violence against Hmong people has been sporadic over the years. And earlier this year, five north side Milwaukee teenagers are suspected of obtaining handguns from friends and going on a nine-week armed robbery spree, apparently targeting Hmong people in and near the west side's Walnut Hill neighborhood.

Thirteen robberies and four attempted robberies later, police caught the suspects one by one over about a week in early March. All have been charged with participation in the spree. But even with the perpetrators apparently off the street, the Hmong are shaken, and the situation has exposed cultural gaps in how the victims of these robberies feel such crimes should be handled.

Back in Laos, Xiong saw men killed for speaking the wrong dialect and children blown to pieces for innocently tripping booby-traps placed by enemy troops. He saw grass homes burned to the ground because a family hadn't declared allegiance to one side or the other. He heard of women kidnapped and raped just for being married to a man with the wrong political philosophy, and he saw personal property confiscated as sort of an unofficial "war tax."

But in all that violence, he explained, there was one constant: "It was war. There were enemies, and that was the only reason to fight or attack someone. We only fight the enemy, not ourselves."

Fighting "ourselves" is how Xiong and other middle-age Hmong are describing the robberies that have plagued them here.

"You don't attack the people you live next to, where I'm from," he said. "They are not the enemy. You don't point gun to take something that's someone else's. If you do that, you want a fight. It make me want to say 'Should I fight again? Is that how I stop this?' "

Ue Xiong's story

Ue Xiong, 37, has lived in Milwaukee since 1992 with her husband Fong Chang, 39, their son Coua Chang, 13, and eight other family members.

None had factored violent crime into their vision of the American dream -- at least not until the afternoon of March 4, when a young robber stuck a semiautomatic pistol to Xiong's head and demanded money and keys as she prepared to drive to her night job at a molding company.

"It left me both fearful and angry," she said through a translator. "Fearful, because I thought leaving Laos and coming to a place without war, I would be in a peaceful place. But I am angry, because life in Laos was tough. And this sort of thing just didn't happen."

And if it did happen, the response was different. In Laos, among the Hmong, the justice system was much more personal than it is here -- and sometimes more harsh. An armed robber, if captured, would at the very least be placed into a stockade in a village square and be publicly shamed by his neighbors, immigrants say. In the worst cases, he'd be beaten or killed.

Milwaukee Police Chief Arthur Jones said he empathizes with the Hmong families and understands their frustration, but he insists that the Hmong community exercise patience and let police corral the robbers.

Investigating crime is a slow process, Jones said, but taking a suspect through the criminal justice process is more fulfilling than vigilante justice.

At a meeting with police officials in the west side's 3rd District station last month, more than four dozen Hmong residents voiced their concerns about the robberies. At the time, police had not made arrests. Many, including Yang Xiong, insisted that if need be, they could fight the robbers themselves.

One police officer, familiar with the cases, said he didn't doubt that young robbers would be "in for a world of hurt, if they actually push these people that far that they fought back . . . The things they went through back in their country and the people they faced make these kids (the robbers) look like infants."

The officer also said that during interrogation the young suspects denied targeting Hmong people -- but that the pattern of the robberies shows otherwise.

The Hmong will wait for police, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee community development specialist Pa Vang says, but they won't necessarily like it.

"You have to understand that turning to police and waiting for an investigation to take place is not how we used to handle things like this in Laos," Vang, 34, said. "The older people just didn't handle crime that way. To them, if somebody holds a gun to your head, they want to kill you, not just scare you.

"The older people have been taught all their lives that if that happens, you resolve the situation -- fairly, to them -- by killing them first. Here they struggle, though, because who is the enemy? Neighbors. They will not kill, of course, but it is hard for them, because they want immediate relief. It is tough for them, but they are slowly recognizing there is nothing they can do and that they must work within the system and put their faith in police. The younger generation, many of whom grew up here after their parents came, are helping the older generation understand that."

Kao Xiong, 24, is part of that younger generation.

The sophomore engineering student at UWM is proud of the growth of his community, the number of retail stores operated by Hmong, the high level of Hmong home ownership.

Kao Xiong is as American as he is Hmong, he will tell you, and he's confident that he understands "the American way of life, good and bad."

Nevertheless, he and his young wife, Xia Vang, 18, were terrified when two robbers approached with guns drawn March 6.

Xiong and Vang were on the porch of their N. 34th St. home, preparing to go inside that afternoon when two of the accused crooks ran up to them from the street and threatened to shoot if the couple opened the door or made a peep.

The robbery lasted just seconds, but by then Vang was crumpled on the porch crying hysterically. After checking to make sure his wife was OK, Kao Xiong's first thought was not to attack, but to call the police.

"A lot of kids and young people around here have talked about picking up guns, because they hear the old stories. I know that is not the solution, though," Kao Xiong said. "My father, he was a Laos veteran. He helped the American CIA during the Vietnam War. He became a soldier at 13 and was in the first group in his village to go and fight.

"It's always been very interesting and scary . . . to hear him talk about what he experienced. So I understand how the older people would want to put a stop to robberies the old way. It's what they know."

Kao Xiong did make that call to police, and in the past few weeks he and other young Hmong have decided to form a community watch group.

"It's something we want to do," he explained. "The younger generation, we're talking among ourselves, and we agree that we have to stand up for ourselves. We agree with the older generation that we can't just wait for police to come and get criminals. But the way to do things until they are caught is to look out for each other, to watch our backs. That is why a watch group is an idea we like."

It's a tough way to get acclimated to a culture, Kao Xiong said, adding that even his community, close-knit by nature, will benefit from this situation by growing closer and more vigilant.