From The Sunday Times, March 18, 2007
I always knew I’d find my sister again
When Loung Ung fled the terror of Pol Pot’s Cambodia she had to leave part of her family behind. She tells Jon Swain how they were reunited after 15 years.
By the age of 10, Loung Ung had endured the killing of her mother and father and the deaths of two sisters at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. She had fought off a soldier who tried to rape her and had suffered starvation and forced labour.
In the cruel roulette of life the little Cambodian girl with beautiful sad eyes seemed to be an especially tragic loser. A child of the Killing Fields, she had been denied even laughter as she grew up. Last week, poised and beautiful, she was in London to talk about her life. “I should have been dead,” she said. “I was so lost I did not even know my birthday.”
Pol Pot had turned the clock back to Year Zero, telling the millions of Cambodians toiling in the giant labour camp their beautiful country had become, that “to spare you is no profit, to destroy you is no loss”. His genocidal regime killed an estimated 2m people through murder, disease, malnutrition and overwork.
In 1980, after the Khmer Rouge’s defeat, Loung’s older brother Meng resolved to escape from the hell of their once gentle home-land. There were only two ways out: walk through the minefields to the Thai border, or flee by boat. But that required him to raise enough gold to pay a smuggler and he was able to borrow enough for only three people.
He decided that they were to be him, his wife Eang and either Loung or her 12-year-old sister Chou. “It was like the toss of a coin between Chou and me,” Loung, now 36, said. Meng chose Loung because she was the youngest and also because he believed she was fearless. Her Khmer Rouge upbringing had made her aggressive, not a good thing for girls in Cambodia. But it might be all right in America.
Although they were children, the sisters’ war-torn hearts were bound by their tragic past. They were inseparable. As she left her village of Bat Deng, Loung caught a last glimpse of Chou, her lips quivering and her face crumpled as tears streamed down her cheeks. “Her face stayed with me all through the trip to my new world,” Loung said.
Meng, Eang and Loung made it to a refugee camp in Thailand where Meng decided he did not want Loung ever to forget Cambodia. So with a few strokes of a pen on her asylum papers he made April 17 her birthday. That was the date in 1975 when Pol Pot’s victorious Khmer Rouge had taken the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, forcing its 2m inhabitants at gunpoint out into the countryside to toil like ants in the fields.
The three refugees were eventually resettled in America, in the mountains of Vermont, through the sponsorship of a local church. Here, Loung went to school, started learning English and tried hard to be an American. She learnt to eat rice from a packet and marvelled at a country where strangers gave away sweets to children knocking on their doors at Hallowe’en.
Although she tried hard, she found it difficult to be accepted by other children who regarded her as a “party pooper”. Haunted by the images of her father’s death, she sat in the school counsellor’s office thinking she wanted to tell her that there was so much pain inside her that she was lonely and sad most of the time.
She never forgot Chou. When she left Cambodia she had vowed to herself that she would return in five years to see her beloved sister. But it was 15 years before she went back. In part that was because America had no diplomatic relations with then Vietnam-ese-dominated and communist Cambodia until 1993. In part it was because she could not face it.
“I had put all thoughts of seeing Chou out of my mind,” she said. “And through the years, as I became busy with school and life, I left Chou farther and farther behind until, in my mind, the oceans and 12,000 miles between us seemed impossible to cross.
“You see, I wanted to be normal. I wanted the American dream. I wanted more out of life than what war had given me. I wanted to have a good time. I wanted to be able to spend $20 on a meal and not feel guilty because it was my Cambodian brothers’ monthly income.”
Loung found that even her birthday was a huge weight to bear. Birthdays are about life; instead hers was connected with death. “I wanted to be frivolous on my birthday,” she said. “I wanted to get drunk. I wanted to dance on tables and I didn’t think you could do that being Cambodian. I wanted to be silly. I wanted to be sexy. But I could not do that.”
With hard work she distinguished herself at school and won a scholarship. But all this, she said, made her spend the next few years being “really selfish”.
“I bought expensive champagne and lived in the south of France for a while. It was not a bad thing because it taught me that like any other gratification it was not sustainable unless I shared it with loved ones.”
So in 1995 Loung went back to Cambodia for the first time and was reunited with Chou. “Before I went back I was so afraid. I was afraid that once I started crying I would not be able to stop,” she said. But Chou was waiting for her at the airport and even after all the time they had been apart it was like meeting an old friend.
Out of this poignant but uplifting story came Loung’s determination to tell the world about the Cambodian genocide. In 2000 she published an extraordinary book, First They Killed My Father. Initially rejected by 20 publishers, it went on to become a bestseller.
At the same time Loung became an activist, immersing herself in the campaign against landmines. Today she is a spokes-woman for the Cambodia Fund, a programme run by Veterans for America, helping disabled Cambodians and amputees.
She leads delegations to Cambodia several times a year. “I wanted to be a human being and if I didn’t speak out and live the life I wanted to live I might as well be still in the Khmer Rouge,” she said. “I felt I had been given a second opportunity of life and thought it would be a real shame, a real squander not to live it, not to grab it at the fullest, so that meant me being involved in the community and the world.” Her new book, After They Killed Our Father (Mainstream), deals with her tragic separation and eventual happy reunion with Chou and has just been published in Britain. She had to piece together Chou’s story from their numerous conversations and interviews with family members and neighbours.
While Loung was growing up in America, facing her own demons, Chou was living in a squalid village without electricity or running water and wishing she could have had an education. She had to endure many hardships, from a Khmer Rouge attack to the death of a young cousin who fell into a pot of boiling water. She, too, is a strong woman.
Since their reunion Loung has been back to Cambodia some 30 times. She said she likes nothing better than to travel on a motor-bike back to Bat Deng village and walk the paths of her childhood, sleep in a hammock in the great greenness of the countryside and play with her nephews and nieces.
Her books have made her a household name in Cambodia. But what impresses people most is her ability to eat the roughest peasant food — lizards, insects, crickets — without getting sick. “I have an iron stomach,” she said.
Recently, she has been looking at buying a property in Phnom Penh. “I have had great times in America. But the times I have spent with my family since we were united have been so much richer and have filled my heart with more spirit and feeling,” she said.
She adds that part of the inspiration to write another book stemmed from her disillusionment with the American invasion of Iraq and particularly President Bush’s aircraft carrier speech in 2003, after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, proclaiming victory before a banner declaring “Mission accomplished”.
“I had hoped it was true and the war was over. But I knew it was not over and it made me start thinking of the whole story of what it takes to survive wars. I had written about surviving war and I wanted to tell the story of what it takes to survive the peace.”
Three years ago she married and now lives in Cleveland with her husband Mark. She has chosen not to have children: “My relatives in Cambodia think it is crazy. They are all up there at the temple shaking the incense, praying I will have a child.
“There are a lot of reasons why not. But definitely there is a fear if something happened to the child. I haven’t had anybody I loved die in a long time, since I left Cambodia in fact. I think if it happened I would have a complete meltdown.”
From war-torn Cambodia to America and back again has been an extraordinary, often painful, but poignantly uplifting odyssey for her and Chou. The tearful goodbyes they said one hot morning on a dusty road in Cambodia 27 years ago are long in the past.
She vows to be in Phnom Penh when the few remaining top killers of the Khmer Rouge are judged by a UNsponsored war crimes tribunal for crimes against humanity. “There is not a single thing that can compensate me for my parents’ death and the deaths of 2m people,” she said. “But I want to hear from their mouths why it happened.”
Re-produced courtesy of www.timesonline.co.uk
Sunday, March 18, 2007
From The Sunday Times, March 18, 2007