I am gathering myself to leave the cafe when a small, olive-skinned woman walks across. She has piercing dark eyes and black hair pulled on back of her head.
‘Are you a professor?’ she says. It is a strange way to begin a conversation and I’m flummoxed. In my sweeping skirt and shirt that needs ironing I can’t believe I look like an academic.
‘I’m Carol. I’m meeting a professor here,’ she says. ‘To help with my research; into the psychology of Buddhism.’
She has an accent from the west coast of America, and the eyes of someone from south-east Asia. Her voice is so soft I must lean forward to hear her. She picks up a heavy book. ‘I think there must be something, in the psychology, that helps understand why the Laos are as accepting as they are. Buddhism, you see,’ – she struggles to find a page as if to prove her point – ‘is the only religion that does not sanction war. Which makes what happened here all the more terrible. The most bombed country in the world … and Nixon told us it wasn’t happening.’
It is a relief to meet someone as upset about this as I am. I confess my own struggle to understand why the Lao don’t hate us.
‘They never did. When I was here before – in about 1964, I think it was, at the start of the bombing, I was with a medical unit, doing admin, they were astonishing. We had places to stay, but the things we saw …’ She lets the sentence hang and I wait. ‘There were so many factions. We were at a dinner, with a General. His son loved a girl from another group. Three days later the son was brought into us with gunshot wounds – he was dying and I wanted to sit with him, hold his hand while he died. Like anyone would.’ She looked at me, as if for confirmation that compassion was permitted. ‘I was told to leave him alone; it wasn’t safe. No one knew if it was someone from the General’s side disapproving of the son’s choice of girlfriend, or from the other side wanting to upset him. If it was known I’d befriended him, well, they might have come after me.’ Now her look made sense.
She took a deep breath. Was she working herself up to say something even more difficult? ‘Americans were dying here too,’ she said at last, ‘though they didn’t know that at home. If they died here their families were told they were missing in Vietnam. Even now families don’t know if their loved ones died here.’
We arrange to have supper together before I leave Luang Prabang. We settle in a restaurant and our chatter is inconsequential for a while, but she is easily distracted and I feel sure she has something she needs to say. As our food arrives she leans across the table to whisper to me.
‘I read a dreadful thing,’ she says. ‘In my books, talking about the war here. That project, the medical project – it was part of a CIA operation. They never told me.’ Her eyes are wide with the horror of it. ‘I never knew, honestly I never knew. The CIA, here, in Laos, and the bombing.’
It hangs, her confession, over our curry. She is not hungry and I play with my rice. I have no idea how to reply – or even how to think about it.
‘The CIA,’ she says again. It is as if she needs to say it over and over to help herself believe it. ‘I never knew; honestly I never knew. It’s only the reading I’ve done this week – I was young; nobody told me.’
I have no idea if she needs consoling, or affirming that I believe her (which I do), that it is truly shocking. All of which I want to say but somehow it is so appalling that I can’t find the words.
Our meal is soon over; we exchange addresses, hug, and go our separate ways, promising to keep in touch. I slip into a bar for a beer; she has given me much to think about. She’s asked about my writing – and knows I’ll tell this story. She has told me much more than the high and mighty of America might want disclosed. She will recognise herself here. The core of this story is as she told it. But I’ve played with her biography; I cannot put her a risk.
This is an edited extract from Bombs and Butterflies - there are links to the right of this blog if you want to read more. Or trot across to the website here.