HELPING THE WORLD'S HOMELESS; Laotians: treading a hard road 'home'

"I want to go to America as soon as possible. My brother lives in California." The lean, elderly man with the wispy Ho Chi Minh beard and dressed in black pyjamas talks hopefully. He has nearly completed a four-week program here in this YMCA drug detoxification center at the foot of a string of misty, forest-clad mountains along the Laotian border.

Other opium addicts here are less robust. They lie on their wooden cots, listlessly watching us through half-closed eyes or dozing in the semidarkness of the ward. Many of them are Hmong tribesmen, traditional cultivators of opium, from the Nan region's two refugee camps.

Opium addiction is one of the major problems relief officials face in trying to help the Hmong and other Laotians prepare for life in lands jarringly different from their own.

Refugees know that those who are allowed to resettle in the United States cannot have physical or psychological disabilities. Nor can they be drug addicts, alcoholics, or communists.

As a result, many of the addicted refugees agree to undergo detoxification and voluntarily sign an agreement to fully abide by the doctor's orders. "We can only help them if they are self-motivated," says a Thai medic.

The majority of the refugees are men, some of whom have been smoking a score or more opium pipes a day for years. There are also several women. But most disconcerting of all are the children. One of them, a 12-year- old, has been smoking since she was five because both her parents did.

"I had to prepare their pipes," she explains. "I couldn't sleep at night so my mother told me to smoke, too."

Relief officials are uncertain about the efficiency of the treatment. It is still too early to tell. Some refugees living in the United States for the past two years have managed to stay off opium. Not all make it. Some suffer relapses -- understandable, perhaps, given the boredom of the camps -- and return for a second try.

But tens of thousands of Laotians have overcome the various hurdles and have been resettled in countries in the West. The United States, for example, has taken more than 100,000 Laotians of different ethnic groups since 1975.

Thousands of others, some of whom have been in camps for up to five years, still cling to the hope that one day they may be able to return to Laos. But realizing that the communist Pathet Lao may well remain permanently ensconced in their homeland, many of them, including the Hmong, are growing more and more despondent. Indeed, a growing number are beginning to regard resettlement as their only way out. And the Thais adamantly maintain that their country cannot absorb them.

"It is painfully sad to see what is happening to these people," says Dr. Mike Toole, a multilingual Australian who founded the Tom Dooley Heritage Foundation clinic at Ban Nam Yao. "Is resettlement a good thing you ask? Well, what is the alternative? There is no alternative.

"They can't go back, can they? But they do want to go back -- more than anything else -- to a Laos which no longer exists."

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an estimated 1,700 new arrivals cross the Mekong River or trek along mountain paths into Thailand every month. As a result of the resettlement program, however, the camp populations have been dropping.

The United States is the favorite relocation target. Previously, Laotians with strong cultural ties to the French, such as civil servants, teachers, and the bourgeoisie, went to France. Now most of the refugees are illiterate farmers.

There also appears to be a backlash to the splitting up of refugees with close cultural ties. Clan chiefs feel that the only way to retain their culture and traditions is to resettle the refugees in large groups. Some refugees have even refused to depart unless they can be resettled en masse, relief officials say.

When groups are split by departures, wrenching farewell scenes reflect the break up of family ties and of a 3,000-year-old culture. Hands clutch hands through bus windows. Teary-eyed faces exchange last glances.

Sometimes, afraid of the unknown, the refugees are unable to tear themselves away. "I know of cases where refugees have climbed off the bus and returned to the camp," recalls one relief official.

But what about those who wish to remain? Relief officials talk of the possibility of eventually repatriating them, once political conditions permit. Will it be years? Perhaps.

"The Pathet Lao would have to do a lot of backpedaling for that to happen," says one European diplomat. "Events over the past few years have shown that the communists are quietly pleased to see people who have no wish to adapt to their system leave. It saves killing them."

For the moment, the UNHCR will have to do everything in its power to prevent the Thais from forcibly shoving the Laotians back across the border, as has often been threatened in the capital.

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