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Reporter returns home KSEE's Zoua Vang goes to Laos to tell the Hmong story.

BY: Rick Bentley, The Fresno Bee May 14, 2002, Tuesday

KSEE, Channel 24, reporter Zoua Vang celebrates June 27, 1977, as her birth date. That is the arbitrary date given to her when she arrived in the United States after her family's escape from Laos in 1980.

"All my parents could remember was that I was born two years after the departure of Gen. Vang Pao [he resigned his commission May 14, 1975].

"And because it was the time my parents were working in the fields, they assumed it was summer," Vang says.

The reporter and KSEE cameraman John Collins spent three weeks in Laos in December. Vang's trip back to the country of her birth will be featured in a three-part KSEE news package to be presented this week.

Coverage starts with the story of Dr. Long Thao.

The Merced doctor made a trip to the mountains of Laos, where he treated Hmong patients.

That report airs during the station's 11 p.m. newscasts tonight.

Vang's reflections on returning to the fields, mountains and refugee camp where she lived as a child will be a news package on KSEE's 11 p.m. Wednesday newscast. Also scheduled is a 30-minute special, "Trail of Tears: The Hmong Story," to be broadcast at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

"We are airing the first two pieces during our 11 o'clock news because that newscast gets the most viewers," says KSEE news director Julie Akins.

Sending a news crew to the other side of the globe to Pakee, a tiny speck of a village in northeastern Laos, for three weeks is unusual and costly for a local station. Station manager Mark Benscheidt would only say the price of the news trip was "substantial."

"I agreed we would do the story because of the passion Zoua had for the story," Benscheidt says. He also agreed to the trip because of how important such a story would be in helping present more information about the 25,000 Hmong who live in Fresno.

Part of the expense, about $1,900, was underwritten by Asian Village, King's Winery Medical Clinic, Fresno Pharmacy and KC Super Market.

Blong Xiong, project coordinator for Fresno Center for New Americans, says the fact that the local community provided support shows how important this story is to the Hmong community.

"The Hmong community has been here for 30 years. But most people have only cursory information about us. The biggest thing I hope that comes from the stories is that it opens a bridge of communication between the many diverse cultures we have here," Xiong says.

Financing the trip was only the first hurdle. Collecting the 16 hours of footage was a challenge because of the remote locations.

"I packed as light as I could," Collins says. "But I also took everything I thought I would need. We even bought an adapter where I could have charged my batteries off an automobile battery if necessary. But we never had to do that."

Vang served as translator and cultural guide.

"I told John to never sit near me. That is something men and women don't do. One time, he forgot and sat down beside me. I got up and moved," Vang says.

Guides had to chop heavy brush for the news team to reach the abandoned Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand where, more than 25 years ago, Vang's family members waited a year to be notified if they would be given permission to come to the United States. Only wooden ribs of the buildings are left to jut out of the thick foliage.

"I found out that there are plans to dig up the Hmong who are buried there. They want the land for farming, and they are just tired of looking at the graves. The Hmong have a saying, 'Even the dead cannot find peace,' " Vang says.

Vang's parents, who live in Fresno, have vivid memories of life in Laos.

"My mother couldn't understand why I volunteered to do the story. She was worried about my safety," Vang says.

Ancestors of the Hmong lived along the Yellow River in China about 5,000 years ago. Wars and persecution by other ethnic groups forced the Hmong to move to Indochina at the end of the 19th century. They settled in Laos, Thailand, Burma and Vietnam.

There's little printed history. The Hmong were recruited to fight against the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, a fact about which even the United States government has been vague.

Vang has no memory of being an infant in the crowded camp where hundreds of Hmong were forced to live while waiting for word of their future.

"But we are a storytelling people. I have heard stories of the camps from my parents and grandfather so many times," Vang says. "That's why I knew I had to do this story. I knew I could do this story with my heart."

A year after arriving in the United States, Vang's parents -- Blia Lee and Nao Tou Vang-- moved from Mobile, Ala., to Fresno, where they began to farm. Vang's youth was a mix of hard work in the fields and even harder work in the classroom. She's been with KSEE news for two years.

The three-part series gives Vang a professional and personal pride. She has been able to capture a small part of the Hmong story, at one time shared only through stories passed down through generations, in a more permanent fashion.

Vang explains she is happy with the work despite one major incident.

"One night, everyone in the village was sitting around this small television set watching a Hmong movie," Vang says. "I decided because it was so cold I would dry my hair before I joined them. My hair dryer blew out the generator. Everything went pitch black.

"I never used the hair dryer again the entire trip."

The reporter can be reached at rbentley@fresnobee.com. GRAPHIC: Zoua Vang