BY: Kimberly Hayes Taylor; Staff Writer - September 5, 2000, Tuesday
The light of a summer sunset streams in when Mee Xiong opens the door for her eldest daughter. Kicking off her shoes, Anjelia Vang goes through the rooms, raising blinds, opening curtains. She calls out, "Mom, it's so dark in here."
The extra light makes little difference. The family says the house has been dark since Jan. 26, the last time Charlie Vang called from Thailand. He promised he would return from his two-month vacation in two days. He never arrived.
Charlie Vang, a local clan leader and St. Paul businessman, left the Twin Cities on Nov. 14, carrying two suitcases, $5,000 cash and his U.S. passport. No one seems to know exactly what happened to him. But his nephew, Chong Xem Vang, of St. Paul, who was with him, says that they decided to take a last-minute trip to Laos to visit relatives. On that trip, Charlie Vang disappeared.
At night, in the darkness, 11 men debated who would ride in two canoes to cross the Mekong River, which separates Thailand and Laos. Chong Xem Vang said he took the first boat. Charlie Vang waited for the second boat. Chong Xem Vang says he never saw his uncle again. On the way across, shots were fired from the Laos side. U.S. officials believe that Charlie Vang was hit and may have fallen into the river.
Chong Xem Vang was among six people _ three American citizens and three permanent U.S. residents _ arrested by Thai authorities on Jan. 29 in Nongkhai Province on the Thai-Lao border. While Chong Xem Vang says they were trying to visit relatives, the State Department says no one is sure why the men were canoeing to Laos in the middle of the night. After an investigation, a department official said the only trace of Charlie Vang, 45, was his passport, which was found in one of the canoes.
Chong Xem Vang spent a month in jail on immigration charges and was released by Thai authorities without explanation. The other men were charged with illegally carrying weapons and hand-held radios. Chong Xem Vang has told Thai and U.S. officials _ and Charlie Vang's family _ that he doesn't know what happened to his uncle.
But Charlie Vang's wife and children say someone has to know something.
"A person does not just disappear," said Anjelia Vang. "He would yell, 'Oh, I got hit!' You would hear a big splash or something."
A U.S. consul from Laos traveled to the site to search for Vang but could not find his body. His death cannot be confirmed.
The circumstances surrounding Vang's disappearance are similar to an incident last year involving two men, who, like Vang, are Hmong-American.
Michael Vang of Fresno, Calif., and Houa Ly of Appleton, Wis., made the same trip across the Mekong River on April 19, 1999. State Department officials do not know why they were crossing the river. Neither man has been seen since.
Some members of Congress and relatives suspect the Laotian government kidnapped, imprisoned and possibly killed the men. Laotian authorities deny any knowledge of their whereabouts. Two joint U.S.-Laotian investigations failed to find them.
A State Department spokesman said both investigations are continuing. He said that U.S. officials have asked Laotian officials for help but have been dissatisfied with the level of cooperation.
A Laotian embassy spokesman said that no one has asked for help in the Charlie Vang investigation.
They are trying to make trouble with the Lao government," said Mai Sayavongs, a spokesman for the Laotian Embassy in Washington, D.C. "We don't know about this. If they ask our government to check on what happened to Charlie Vang, we will check."
Chong Xem Vang has been questioned many times about Charlie Vang. He said he was evasive with U.S. and Thai officials because he didn't trust them, but has told the family all he knows.
An associate minister of the First Hmong Baptist Church in St. Paul, Chong Xem Vang says he prays for answers each day.
"To the community, he was a leader. To me he was like a father," he said. "Whatever answer comes, I will live with that. If he got into the boat, he is dead. If he didn't get in the boat, I believe he is alive."
Charlie Vang's wife, Mee Xiong, 35, and his children say they don't know what to believe. They only know the pain of not knowing.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN) September 5, 2000, Tuesday, Metro Edition
As a Vang clan leader who represented the largest Hmong clan, Charlie Vang's phone rang at all hours.
He attended many weddings and funerals. At birth celebrations, he blessed the babies by tying white string around their wrists for good luck. Never wanting to say no, he would attend up to five parties on a Saturday afternoon.
Vang was called to resolve family disputes. He was consulted about pending marriages. He performed Hmong divorces. He accompanied people to court.
As president of the Vang Council, a St. Paul-based nonprofit organization, he lent money. He helped people find jobs. Vang also ran Lucky Temporary Service in St. Paul.
Since his disappearance, his family says, the Vang clan affairs are in shambles. The annual Vang family picnic wasn't held this summer. And because no one is sure if he is dead or alive, no one has stepped forward to fill his role.
His wife and his children are coping as best they can.
I look at home videos so I can see him. I go to his closet and smell his clothes," said his daughter, Anjelia, 19, who is married and has two sons. "I call to listen to his voice mail so I can hear his voice."
She visits her mother's south Minneapolis home to burn incense and pray to her ancestors.
"I put six incense sticks in the yard," she said. "I ask the dirt, the heavens to judge whoever harmed him. That they get what they deserve."
Mee Xiong, who has depended on her husband since he helped her with homework when she was a schoolgirl of 15, doesn't know what to do.
She is burdened with the responsibilities of caring for the children, running the business, paying the bills. She said bill collectors are calling.
"I miss him every day and every night," she said, tears rolling down her cheeks. "I don't know if he is alive or dead. I don't know how to go on. I think that every day he will come. That he will appear at the door step. I won't believe he is dead."
The family exchanged Christmas presents before he left. Xiong gave her husband a gold chain and a gold bracelet enscribed with the word "Lucky."
She hoped that it would bring him good fortune during his trip.
She has asked Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., for help.
Wellstone's office initiated the investigation and negotiated with Lao officials to acquire a visa for Xiong so she can search for her husband. But Xiong is torn about making the trip. She can't speak the languages. She doesn't know the terrain. She fears leaving her children.
Anjelia Vang feels desperate for something to happen. She has promised her ancestors she'll sacrifice a pig if the family hears anything. If he returns home by next spring, she'll kill two cows to thank them.
She consults a deck of tarot cards. She has called 15 psychics, who give different answers.
Her sister, Kathy Vang, 17, has noticed that relatives don't come around anymore. She has heard their whispers.
"They think of us differently now," she said. "Having no father, they look down on you.
"The house is so empty," she said. "It's all quiet. It's so dark looking." .
_ Staff writer Lucy Y. Her contributed to this report.