Thursday, November 15, 2007

Activism really matters

Loung Ung at the Univ of Wisconsin [photo - Jared Guess]
Genocide survivor encourages activism abroad - by Felicia Clark Advance Titan (Univ. of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, USA)
Educating people about the dangers of land mines and consequences of genocide has become a top priority in Loung Ung’s life. Ung brought tears and laughter to over 300 audience members in Reeve Memorial Union Wednesday night when she told her story of survival during the Cambodian genocide, sponsored by the University Speaker Series. “Here on this campus, it is possible to forget that we actually live in a world populated by 6.3 billion people, where 50 percent suffer from malnutrition… and 120 million people in the last century have survived some kind of war in their country,” Ung said. She penned her memoir, “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers,” and more recently became an activist to educate others about the dangers of land mines that injure up to 18,000 people each year, according to Ung. “I am an activist writer,” Ung said. “But I’m an activist first and foremost.” She said she kept a diary to write about her pain and bitterness because she couldn’t talk to her American friends about what had happened, and she wasn’t able to contact her family in Cambodia until 1993.
In Ung’s book she describes her journey from the start of the genocide in her village Phnom Penh, where her siblings and parents were killed, to being trained as a child soldier and her escape to Thailand and eventually America. One of her most vivid memories took place when her father, Seng Im Ung, was murdered by soldiers in the countryside. “I knew what was going to happen but didn’t want to believe it,” Ung said. “We knew we couldn’t hide forever.” One month after her father was killed, her mother, Ay Choung, pushed Ung and her siblings out of the house, telling them to leave and that she could no longer take care of them. “How could there be beauty when there was only hell on my Earth?” Ung recalled. She said she became filled with hate for the world that had turned a blind eye to the genocide and death of her family. She said she also began to believe that her mother was weak and never really loved her. It wasn’t until she came to America and spoke with other female victims of war and genocide that she finally understood why her mother had pushed her out of her life forever. Suddenly, Ung’s view of her mother completely changed. She did it to save her life. “She was the strongest woman I’ve ever known,” Ung said. “I regret that I didn’t see that for 18 years.”
There were 20,000 mass graves in Cambodia, a country the size of Oregon, according to Ung. “They weren’t just numbers and statistics, they were people’s brothers and sisters ...” Ung said. As a child soldier she attended classes where “teachers” told her that everyone thought she and the other soldiers were enemies because they were the future of Cambodia. “Hate works in not all that mysterious way,” Ung said. “It works because you take hurt children and people and you train them to kill when there’s nothing else left for them to live for.” Three years, eight months and 21 days later, she found herself in a bomb shelter with friends she made in the labor camps, and at nine years old she felt bombs strike her shelter. “What games were you playing when you were nine?” Ung asked. “What kind of … plastic guns and weapons did your brothers shoot you with?” After 15 years of being away from home, she returned to Cambodia, reuniting with her remaining siblings and attended a memorial service for the victims of the Cambodian genocide. During the ceremony she learned that 20 members of her family had been killed by the Khmer Rouge troops, the communist group responsible for the Cambodian genocide.
Since then, she’s devoted her time to bringing justice and reconciliation to Cambodian genocide victims. “It’s really easy for us sometimes to feel powerless, to feel like we don’t have the power to make a difference to do something about it to change the state of our world,” Ung said. “… I hope to share with you that [that] is wrong, [and] that we do and can make a difference in this world.” Ung said peace activists have taught her the most important lesson in her life: the understanding that peace is not automatic. “We’re all lucky to be here in this room, and yet many millions of people all over the world are not as lucky and not as fortunate as us,” Ung said. She said she believes her testimony proves that activism matters and that people can make a difference. “Twenty-five years ago I was living on the streets, eating out of garbage cans, hating the world wondering why the world hated me,” Ung said. “And yet somebody somewhere… they got off their couch, they got out their comfort zones… None of us got here on our own, and that’s why we need to give others that helping hand.” Link: Advance Titan.

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