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The Originals

During the U.S. bombing on Laos (1964-1973), an American educational adviser Fred Branfman and his Laotian colleague Bouangeun Luangpraseuth collected illustrations and narratives from Laotian refugees. Etched in pencil, pens, crayons and markers, these accounts are raw and stark, reflecting the crude events that shaped the reality of these victims’ lives. Only a small circle of individuals knew of the existence of these original drawings.

The drawings and narratives represent those who endured an air war campaign perpetuated in secrecy. Drawn primarily in pencil, pens, crayons and markers, they are raw and stark, reflecting the crude events that shaped their reality. The authenticity of the narration and drawings emphasize the illustrators, not as artists or writers, but ordinary villagers who bore witness to a devastating event.


Each of the illustrations demonstrate the violence of warfare. However, the images of blood and death are contradicted by the memories of the scenic and peaceful village life these survivors once lived. Scenes show farmers tending to their rice fields, monks praying at the temple, women going to the market and children playing in the schoolyard. The drawings reveal that these memories of their simple and peaceful life are abruptly halted as they become tarnished with violence, death and loss. They capture the very moments when their lives and society were forever altered. The illustrations and narratives are accompanied by historical photos, maps and other relevant documents to give context to the decade-long bombings.


A most unlikely connection led to the reemergence of the over 40-year old drawings. The “recovery” of these illustrations is a story in itself. As told by Channapha Khamvongsa, Legacies of War's Founder:

“I was working at the Ford Foundation in the fall of 2003, when I went to Washington D.C. for a meeting with one of Ford’s grantees, the Institute for Policy Studies. In attendance was John Cavanagh, the Executive Director. John asked me what the origin of my name was. When I told him it was Laotian, he immediately exclaimed, “It’s really terrible what happened in the Plain of Jars!” Of course, I was shocked. After all, it seemed most Americans didn’t even know where Laos was, let alone, the specific region of Xieng Khoang, one of the most heavily bombed provinces. So, I inquired furthered about his familiarity with the secret U.S. bombings in Laos.


As it turns out, John had worked alongside Fred Branfman in the 1970s at the Indochina Resource Center, a policy think-tank working to stop the bombings in Southeast Asia. When the office closed down, John was cleaning out the office and came across the illustrations. With a sense that the drawings were important, he decided to hold on to them. As John and I came to this remarkable connection, John told me that he had some illustrations drawn by survivors of the U.S. bombings.”

These historical documents had been sitting in John Cavanagh’s D.C. office for the last quarter-century! And in a remarkable twist of fate, John met a Laotian-American decades after the war and in a context far from the Vietnam War-era. In spring 2004, John turned over the illustrations to Channapha, with the hopes that she would, “do something with them.” And hence, began Legacies of War.

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Left to Right: Channapha Khamvongsa, Fred Branfman, Bouangeun Luangpraseuth

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