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By Susan Mansfield
August 18, 2007
IT'S HARD to know what to say to Loung Ung. I've been reading about her life, her childhood in the Killing Fields of Cambodia, losing both parents and two of her sisters to Pol Pot's regime. How she trained as a child soldier, endured starvation, forced labour and attempted rape all before the age of ten. Any response sounds like a meaningless platitude.
Ung, a petite, beautiful Cambodian-American woman of 37, is used to this kind of reaction. "That has been a sad effect of my book (her riveting memoir First They Killed My Father). I want people to know that this petite slice of a woman is just like many of your friends. In the last century, 120 million people have survived wars. How many of us are out there?"
It was thinking about the aftermath of war which prompted her to write her second book, After They Killed Our Father, which takes up the story after she arrives in the United States aged ten. Seeing George Bush standing under a "Mission Accomplished" banner three months after invading Iraq, she felt that people needed to be reminded that war is never so simple. "War isn't over just because someone says it is. The process of peace takes many, many years. My first book is about surviving the war, the second is about surviving the peace."
Ung was five, the sixth of seven children, when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh in April 1975. The daughter of a high-ranking government official, she led a privileged life with trips to the market, cinema and swimming pool, sneaking off to buy junk food from street vendors when her parents weren't looking.
When Pol Pot's army rolled into the city, evacuating the inhabitants at gunpoint, the Ungs fled, snatching what they could carry and promising their frightened children that they would soon return home. But, reduced to marching for days on end as food supplies dwindled, it became clear there was no going back. Ung remembers being given money by her mother to use as toilet paper - the currency was worthless, the country in free-fall.
Living in a succession of jungle villages, starvation and malnutrition threatened as food supplies failed. Ung's elder sister Keav, a beautiful headstrong teenager who had loved clothes and music, died from dysentery because her body was too weak to fight the disease. Ung remembers being so hungry that one night she stole a handful of rice from the family's meagre store. The guilt haunted her for years.
"I think very few Westerners know what it is to be really hungry. In America it's so funny, people flush out their system with colonics and slim ballerina tea. In Cambodia there were times I was so hungry there was not even a grain of rice to line the intestine. A fistful of rice feels like a lifetime of meals."
Always they feared a knock on the door. Pol Pot's bid to create an agrarian utopia saw professional people and former officials slaughtered without mercy. Her father's position with the last government made him - and therefore the whole family - an obvious target. Finally, the knock came. Loung, her brother and sister were sitting on the steps of their shack as the sunset flamed red and gold, when two Khmer soldiers appeared and asked for their father. Ung watched her adored father until he was out of sight, knowing she would never see him again.
Many years later in the US, she realised that her stomach would contort every time she saw a red-gold sunset. "When trauma occurs, it doesn't display itself with an explanation, it doesn't come with a guide book about why you get it - this is why your stomach hurts when you see a sunset. I could have enjoyed many more sunsets if I had realised it sooner!"
A few months later, Ung's mother sent away her three children, Kim, Chou and Loung, explaining that they would be safer as orphans. At a child labour camp, Loung - then aged eight - was selected to train as a soldier. One day she was overcome by a longing to see her mother, but by the time she reached the village, her mother and baby sister had gone, taken by soldiers to join the ranks of Cambodia's "disappeared".
As Pol Pot's regime crumbled, the five remaining Ung siblings were reunited. Loung's eldest brother Meng was determined to leave Cambodia and paid a smuggler to take him and his wife to Thailand, from where they could leave for the West.
He had enough money for one other person, and chose Loung because he thought she, as the youngest, would adapt most easily to a new way of life. She still wonders what would have happened if he had chosen one of the others. Her second book traces the parallel stories of her own life in Vermont and her sister's life in a jungle village with no electricity or running water, the country around strewn with landmines. Undergoing an arranged marriage at 18, Chou quickly became the mother of five children and is a grandmother at 38.
People would tell Ung she was "the lucky one", but it wasn't as easy as that. "I went through being a child soldier, losing my parents, living in a refugee camp, then I flew 6,000 miles and that was supposed to be it. Why wasn't I better already? Why wasn't my English perfect? Why didn't I know the American way? It's not over for me, it's not over for my sister, it still goes on."
When a low-flying plane passed, or a firework went off, she flinched. While her classmates were worrying about getting a date for the prom, she was having nightmares about being raped by Khmer Rouge soldiers. She felt a sadness inside that she could not express.
At home, her brother and sister-in-law had an unspoken agreement not to talk about the past. Such is the refugee's dilemma: suppressing memories in order to blend in, make a new life. "It was self censorship of the worst kind," Ung says. "But in America, everything about us was different, our skin, our speech, our way of life, our craving for rice three times a day. When we went to buy a 75lb bag of rice, people would ask us if we owned a store!
"We wanted to be like everybody else, model citizens. There were many things we couldn't change, our skin colour, our slanted eyes, our speech patterns, but the story we didn't have to tell. We didn't change it, we just ignored it."
One night when Ung was 16, she took an overdose of painkillers, but hearing her nieces crying in the next room she vomited up the pills. That same night, she picked up a pen and began to write the story which would later be published as First They Killed My Father. "It was my therapy. There's something about writing, channelling your thoughts into your fingers, into a pen, into the page, that was very powerful. When I was writing I had a voice, the voice I had I believed no-one wanted to hear." She has been back to Cambodia frequently since she was reunited with Chou in 1995, slewing off her American life to sleep in a hammock, wash in a river, eat fried crickets. "It helps that I can eat everything they eat, if not more. Growing up in the war, I ate out of garbage cans, I have a stomach of steel!"
But she knows her wounds have not fully healed. "I think the journey to healing is very individual, very unique. There's no real final destination, there's no real closure. You do the best you can, bits and pieces. This year, I might only be working on my sister, next year I might decide to work on my brother."
After a period as an activist fronting a campaign against landmines, she is now taking a back seat. Important as the work is, she has also come to value the rhythm of an ordinary life. Living in Cleveland, Ohio, where she is married to Mark, a property developer, she is taking some time out and plans to write a novel: "It's funny, it's irrelevant, probably no-one will ever publish it, but it's fun."
"It dawned on me that I wanted to have a good time," she says, slightly shamefaced. "It's a bit selfish, I'm going through guilt about it. But with the second book, I realised how much I enjoyed writing. I've been spending a lot of time reading books which are not about death, murder or genocide. It's pure joy.
"I'm so blessed. In know most people have to wait until their retirement to do this. I am having the most wonderful time." Perhaps, in a small way, the lucky child feels lucky after all.