Surviving the peace
This article is from 2007.
Author, campaigner and victim of Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, bestselling writer Loung Ung talks to Allan Radcliffe about how she managed to carry on after the hell of the killing fields
To her classmates in unpretentious Essex Junction, Vermont, Loung Ung must have seemed a fairly regular American high school student. The shy teen fretted about her appearance, every day exchanging her ‘boring Plain Jane outfit’ for a teased-up frightwig, black eyeliner and purple lipstick as soon as she was out of sight of the family home. She railed against adolescent changes to her body and gossiped about boys, once even pushing a hastily scribbled declaration of love into one lad’s locker.
But Loung Ung was different from her contemporaries, and this difference ran deeper than the colour of her skin and her name. In 1984, while her American friends were experiencing The Killing Fields from the comfort of the local cinema complex, Ung opted to see Ghostbusters instead. She had no need to sit through the drama about the horrific Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia: her family had lived it.
Ung was a survivor of Pol Pot’s brutal regime, which killed nearly two million people, around a quarter of the population of Cambodia, between 1975 and 1978. Among those murdered for being enemies of the state was Ung’s father, a former high-ranking military officer. Ung remembers watching him disappear with two soldiers, knowing she would never see him again. Later, both her mother and youngest sister disappeared, while an older sister died in a labour camp. The surviving family members were either sent to labour camps or forced to serve the state by digging trenches, building dams or toiling in the fields, always at gunpoint and often on the verge of starvation. At the age of seven, Ung was assigned to a training camp for child soldiers from which she escaped a year later. Reunited with her surviving siblings she endured disease, malnutrition and narrowly escaped rape at the hands of a Vietnamese soldier.
Ung’s 2001 memoir, First They Killed My Father, is the frank account of her family’s survival during the period leading up to the fall of the Khmer Rouge government in 1978. While Ung decided to tell their story partly as a way of confronting a complacent world with the ugly truth about this oft-overlooked blot on the copybook of history, she also feels the process was cathartic, allowing her to overcome the ‘crazy making’ isolation her unique background brought her. ‘Growing up in the States I didn’t want to talk about it,’ she says. ‘If I were to tell a friend that I used to search the mud for grasshoppers and beetles to eat they would think I was crazy. All of this was quite isolating, so the first book was a process of vomiting the toxicity of my past out of my body.’
In the equally powerful follow-up, After They Killed Our Father Ung picks up her story at the point when she made the dangerous journey out of Cambodia to Thailand with her eldest brother and sister-in-law, before being sponsored to travel to the United States. While Ung claims she never intended to write a second book, she later realised that war stories should be as much about the peace as the actual conflict.
‘I thought I was done with my Cambodia stories,’ she says. ‘What prompted me to write this book was the image of George Bush landing on the USS Lincoln with the backdrop of a sign that read “Mission Accomplished”. That bothered me, the idea that the conflict in Iraq should be over just because politicians and journalists declared it over. These people don’t appreciate that there is no “happy ever after” when you’ve lived through a conflict.’
Ung’s new memoir draws parallels between a comfortable adolescence in the US and the ongoing struggle of her other family members, particularly older sister Chou, whom Ung and her brother were forced to leave in Cambodia. The book is compelling in exploring the effects of political crises on personal lives. The sisters were not reunited until 1995 when Ung went home.
‘My sister was always the central figure in my life, even though I didn’t see her for many years. It’s always preyed on my mind that my brother could have picked her to accompany him to the States and I would have been left in Cambodia. As a result our lives have been very different – she had an arranged marriage at 18 while I only recently got married, for instance – but we’re both very healthy people in ourselves.’
While the American part of the book tracks the teenage Ung’s own battles with the ghosts of her past as she embraces new opportunities and challenges in the West, the Cambodian sections of the narrative are composed from a mixture of Ung’s imagination and her sister Chou’s input.
‘It wasn’t hard for me to inhabit her voice as we’ve always been kindred spirits,’ says Ung. ‘When I was planning the book I would watch her every movement while I was with her and listen to her closely. I even tried videotaping her but she wasn’t comfortable with that so I took notes. I asked her to repeat her stories over and over again.’ Ung has returned to Cambodia around 30 times in the past 12 years. Despite ongoing problems with political corruption, child soldiers, child prostitution and sex tourism, she is heartened by what she sees as real progress in other important areas.
‘I’m not blind to the fact that it’s less than it should be. But I do see improvements in housing, a growth of schools in the villages and fewer kids whose clothes are tattered, their hair red and their bellies bloated from malnutrition. Also, you ask kids now: “What do you want to do with your lives?” and more and more of them are saying they want to be lawyers, doctors, tour guides, writers, publishers, politicians. That’s so encouraging.’
Ung now intends to write another non-fiction book covering the Khmer Rouge Trial Task Force, which was set up to try the remaining Khmer leaders for war crimes. She feels that this process is finally giving Cambodians a place in history, a story of their own rather than hearing the Cambodian genocide constantly referred to as the ‘Asian Holocaust’. She has welcomed meeting with other Cambodians through travelling to promote her books and as a campaigner for Amnesty International and other charities. Yet she remains astonished at how many people in the West, particularly the USA, have never heard of the Khmer Rouge or the Cambodian Killing Fields.
‘Across cultures I’m amazed that people get so surprised that I’m healthy and happy,’ she laughs. ‘But then, people do have a strange attitude towards war refugees.’ Looking to the future, the author has always harboured a secret ambition to break away from non-fiction. ‘I would love to write fiction. It just so happens that my life was stranger than fiction. With a novel I would have to make what I wrote stranger than my life and fiction.’
Loung Ung, Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, 19 Aug, 7pm, £8 (£6).