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Finally, Loung Ung has unraveled her memories of life and death under Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. But those years still make no sense to her.
Fifteen years ago, Loung Ung was trying hard to be just another Vermont high school student when footage of starving Ethiopian children began to appear on TV news programs. Many Americans found the images upsetting, but few could have understood the suffering the way Ung did: For five years, from 1975 to 1980, Ung herself had existed on the brink of starvation in a war-torn country.
The child of a well-to-do Cambodian military police officer, Ung was living comfortably with her parents and six siblings when the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh in April 1975. Affluent, urban, and connected to the fallen government, her father was exactly the sort of person the country’s bloodthirsty new rulers had targeted for death. Her family fled into the countryside, where the 5-year-old Ung soon had to learn to fend for herself. Her parents and two of her sisters died, but she, three brothers, and a sister somehow survived. In 1980, she and her eldest brother and his wife were relocated to quiet Essex Junction, near Burlington.
“When I first came, I wanted nothing to do with Cambodia,” Ung remembers. “Absolutely nothing. I wanted to be a normal American girl. I wanted to change my name. I wanted to have surgery done to my face. But it just wouldn’t go away.”
She learned English in large part by watching soap operas: “Everyone was getting amnesia every other episode, and I thought that would be kind of fun.” Instead, she simply ignored the past, refusing for 15 years to write to the brother and sister who stayed behind in Cambodia.
Ethiopia reopened the wounds. “Every day you saw pictures of people dying of starvation,” Ung recalls. “That was very traumatic. And then the war just came back to me. I was depressed, and I thought about committing suicide. But I didn’t want to hurt my family.”
An English teacher recommended that she keep a journal. “I’ve been writing ever since,” Ung says. About three years ago, she began distilling her journal into First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. “I wanted to write it for my American-born nieces, who are 19 and 14 and who know nothing about Cambodia. They are as American as anyone. I wanted to give them a family history. They’re happy that I wrote it, but in 10, 20 years, I’m hoping, they’ll be much happier.”
Ung’s account of life in the killing fields is harrowing, as it had to be. “If I had a choice, I would still not think about it,” she admits. “I find it fascinating that people think I have a choice. But I don’t.”
Indeed, the woman who calls herself “a reluctant bearer of witness” has dedicated herself to a cause that may benefit her sister Chou, who remains in Cambodia, living in a village surrounded by minefields. Ung is the spokesperson for the Campaign for a Landmine Free World, a project of the Dupont Circle-based Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. It’s a job that involves regularly bearing witness in public forums across the country.
“As a family, we don’t talk about the war,” Ung reveals. “If we talk about the war, it’s who died, who ate what. You can go to Cambodia and ask anybody on the street how many family members they lost, but you can’t ask them how it felt. You can ask them who they saw killed, if they saw any executions, but you cannot ask them if they felt anything when they saw it.
“For me, it’s difficult also,” she continues. “But there’s a barrier. I can talk to you. I can talk to students. I can talk to a thousand people. But I cannot talk to my brother about this. I was just in Cambodia, and my sister started crying, and then I made a joke. I cannot watch her do it. Even though I talk about it here, there’s still a barrier.”
Remembering her life during the Khmer Rouge’s rule “went from being a burden to being a responsibility,” she says. “And that’s not a bad thing. Of course, I don’t get to be ignorant like I’d like to be.”
In her book, Ung describes her pre-Khmer Rouge self as vivacious, and she has clearly recaptured that quality. She’s articulate and adept in English, a language she says is “very hard” for Cambodians, and occasionally dispels the seriousness of her comments with a short, breathy laugh. Still, she says, “I’d much rather disappear. I’d much rather write the words that someone else speaks. It’s presumptuous to think I have something to share, but I think I do. Not only of Cambodia, but something to say about what’s going on in Kosovo, Rwanda, Bosnia, and East Timor. And the book became therapeutic for myself as well.”
Written simply and in the present tense, First They Killed My Father reclaims the sensibility of Ung’s 5-year-old self. “I lost my voice as a child,” she explains. “I speak for a living now. I give lectures. I do conferences. But as a child, I was very loud, very chatty. I had three brothers and three sisters and I was sixth of seven, so I had to fight to make my voice heard. I was encouraged to be like that. But during the war, when my father looked me in the eye and said we have to pretend to be illiterate peasants, I lost my voice. I shut up. I didn’t know what I could say that was safe.
“There were times when I was swimming in a pond, and I’d think about swimming pools, and I had to turn my mind away, but because what if I said ‘swimming pool’? They’d realize I’m not from the countryside. I’d hear cowbells, and I’m thinking about ice cream carts. But I couldn’t think about ice cream, because they’d realize I’m not a peasant. There were all these things I couldn’t say, so in the end the best thing to do was not say anything.”
The book’s style is direct and moving, and a 5-year-old’s bewilderment seems an appropriate way to chronicle the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge, a political force that seemed motivated by little other than resentment and brutality.
“For the most part, it still doesn’t make sense to me,” says Ung of the genocidal campaign. “It doesn’t make sense to me in Rwanda and Bosnia, either. But you can understand the political environment a little bit better as an adult. Cambodians before the war had the same lifestyle for a thousand years. And then the planes came in and bombed the country. The majority of their soldiers were recruited from the countryside. The soldiers that they recruited were so…hurt. They were peasants, they were illiterate, and they were extremely hurt. The Khmer Rouge took that anger and hatred and fueled that. With that said, it’s still unimaginable.”
“They went as far as banning 1975,” she adds. “It was Year Zero. 1976 became Year 1.
The one subject on which Ung’s book deviates from its child’s-eye testimony is the death of her parents. Both, it can be safely assumed, were killed by Khmer Rouge soldiers, yet Ung witnessed neither death. “It happened,” she says. “My father isn’t here. My mother isn’t here. My sisters are dead. What’s different is that I wrote it in a sort of dream sequence. That’s something that I needed to do for me. Those are the images that run through my mind again and again. The different ways that they could have gone, what happened to them.”
When Ung is asked how she feels about living in the United States, whose bombing of Cambodia made the Khmer Rouge’s victory possible, her first response is a nervous laugh. “Good question,” she says brightly.
“I’m not angry at the U.S. I think the U.S. government had a lot of involvement in Cambodia. I was very angry at U.S. policy for many years. Cambodia was a sideshow war, whereas Vietnam was main stage. But to my family, and the 1.25 million Cambodians who died out of a population of 7 million, it wasn’t a sideshow. But the U.S. didn’t cause the Khmer Rouge.
“Maybe it’s just a defense mechanism, so I can live in America and do the work I do and not feel so guilty. But I’ve chosen to focus more on what I can do and not on getting so angry. I try to focus on getting the U.S. to increase awareness of Cambodia and fund de-mining projects and humanitarian assistance all over Cambodia—and the world.
“That’s as honest as I can be right now,” she concludes. “Maybe I’ll be more angry next month.” CP