Cambodian author shares her story at school’s ‘International Day’

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Thompson - posted Mon., Feb. 14, 2011
Cambodian author Loung Ung signs a copy of her book for a Marianapolis student. Photos by Denise Coffey.
Cambodian author Loung Ung signs a copy of her book for a Marianapolis student. Photos by Denise Coffey.

Cambodian author Loung Ung brought her story to Marianapolis Preparatory School on Friday, Feb. 11, in celebration of International Day.

A slight woman with boundless energy, she told the harrowing story of her family’s flight from the Khmer Rouge in 1975. From a life of privilege, she was plunged into a living nightmare. Ung wrote the national bestseller, “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.” In the book, she chronicles the struggles of her family and her country though one of the bloodiest episodes of the 20th century, when an estimated two million Cambodians were killed through execution, forced labor, disease and starvation.

The Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penhon April 17, 1975, after a decade-long civil war. Within 72 hours, they had evacuated almost two million people from a once-thriving capital. Ung was 5 years old. 

“What would you take if it had been you?” she asked the students in the audience. “Where would you go? How would you find your parents or brothers or sisters?”

In a refrain she would repeat over and over, she told her audience how lucky she had been.

“I was a lucky child. I lived a privileged life until I was 5 years old,” she said. She was lucky that her father kept his children out of school the day the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh, so that her family remained intact, even though they had to flee for their lives.

But she will never forget the day that the soldiers finally came for her father. Because he was a former military officer, he kept moving his family, hiding and changing names. Two years after they fled Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge finally caught up with him. When he picked up Loung, her instinct was to rest her face in the curve of his neck and hold him as tightly as she could. The sunset was gorgeous that evening, she recalled. She remembered gold, magenta and sparkling pink colors flooding the sky. The setting sun was as beautiful as ever when they took her father. Then she became filled with rage. 

“At 7, I dreamed that my father’s death would be quick,” she said. “What were your dreams when you were 7 years old?”

Her mother couldn’t keep the children alive by keeping them together, and in a supreme sacrifice, she sent them off on their own. Ung ended up in a child soldier camp, where she was taught to hate and hurt. “They saw my rage and taught me their propaganda,” she said.

But she was lucky. Ung eventually made it to a refugee camp in Thailand. She was selected to go to Vermont, where a church sponsored her and her oldest brother and his wife. The war followed her in the sounds of car engines, lullabies and planes flying overhead. “But I was lucky,” Ung said. “Someone showed me compassion and kindness.”

She said that she is thankful to the community that reached out to save her, and she is thankful to this country. She feels compassion for people all over the world who have suffered. But she is also hopeful. “Because somebody, somewhere reached out,” she said, she was saved. “No one gets anywhere on their own. It’s important that we build bridges together. Peace is not automatic,” she said. “Peace is action.” For that reason, she has devoted her life to human rights activism.

In 1995, Ung returned to Cambodia for the first time in 20 years. She found her homeland as lush and green as she remembered it. “I’ve yet to find a crayon color to color in the map of my country,” she said.

But she also found suffering everywhere she went - the aftermath of thousands of land mines planted by troops from France, the United States and the Khmer Rouge. Seventeen thousand Cambodians have been injured from land mines. Their injuries give them a lifetime of pain, Ung said. Survivors must have their bones cut and re-cut regularly because bones continue to grow and protrude through the skin.

“Land mines are active for decades,” she said. “There are millions of them in 70 countries around the world.” Something the size of a coffee cup can make anything a missile: rocks, toenails, dirt or grass, she said. “Everything becomes a secondary missile. They are slow-motion weapons of mass destruction, taking one limb, one leg, one life at a time.”

Ung is involved in the constant work of aiding Cambodia’s land mine victims. “It costs $25 dollars for a [prosthetic] foot, $50 to $60 for a leg, $150 dollars for the hips down,” she said. More than 200,000 devices have been made, because people keep coming back to be re-fitted. Think of how many shoes you have in your closet, she said. “For them, that one limb is the shoe that they wear every day.”

“Whatever work you want to do,” she told the students, “you can show people the best of man’s humanity to man.” She urged the students to learn about foreign policy. “The world is smaller than you think,” Ung said.


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