“What does genocide really look like?” Loung Ung asked the audience at the beginning of her lecture last Monday titled “First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.” Sponsored by the Stanley Kaplan Program, Ung spoke about her own experiences, many of which she chronicled in her national bestselling book First They Killed My Father and her second critically acclaimed book, Lucky Child.
Ung’s mission as an activist, author and lecturer is to share her story of surviving genocide and inform the public of issues still faced in Cambodia today. Ung, who began her lecture following an introduction by history professor Jessica Chapman and a brief video segment, linked genocide with hearing the sounds of fellow countrymen’s last breaths. Before expounding on the civil war in Cambodia that lasted almost four years, Ung described the natural beauty of her native country and a time of previous happiness.
“I had a charmed life,” Ung said, describing her lifestyle as one that “afforded privilege.” Ung cited memories of attending Buddhist festivals, going to school, doing homework and eating fried crickets. But at just five years of age, Ung became engaged in a war she did not understand. “I was terrified,” she said.
The change from peacetime to wartime came suddenly. “My city, Phnom Penh, where I spent the most joyful five years of my life, was evacuated in 72 hours … Cambodia was a prison,” Ung said. She described every day as a workday in which one’s value was based on how well one could grow food in the new communist agrarian society.
Ung said her countrymen did not understand politics and had no say in the war. “We didn’t have a voice,” she said. “Having a voice made you a target, putting your family in danger.” Ung and her family moved and changed identities multiple times, as her father had previously held a job as a military police officer.
In the end, however, Ung’s father was tracked down and taken when she was just seven years old. “I knew I wouldn’t see him again, and yet I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “[My family] hated the world.”
Later, Ung’s mother urged her children to escape. “Because of her courage and strength, five of us [siblings] walked out of the killing fields alive,” Ung said.
Ung next traveled to a refugee camp via boat. Unfortunately, her oldest brother only had enough money to take one of his siblings with him. “I left behind my best friend, my kindred spirit, my sister,” Ung said. After six months on the boat, Ung arrived at the camp and was chosen to go to America, which at the time did not have diplomatic ties to Cambodia.
“I came in with a goal and vision of leaving Cambodia behind,” Ung said of her arrival in Vermont. However, her transition to an American lifestyle was not easy. English is Ung’s fourth language. Additionally, she had to grow accustomed to new foods and fads. “We were always trying to make sense of things that didn’t really make sense,” Ung said.
In 1995, Ung was at last able to return to Cambodia. In addition to being reunited with siblings, Ung met many victims of disfigurement on her trip and became acutely aware of the abundance of land mines left by the war.
“In peacetime, our lives could end if we were just unlucky enough to step off the beaten path,” Ung said, describing her sadness for children who cannot explore their country because of the mines. “We call land mines weapons of mass destruction in slow motion, taking one limb, one life at a time,” she said. Since 1997, Ung has worked as a land mine activist, educating others and working on the distribution of prosthetic limbs.
“Twenty-five years ago, I was living on the streets, eating out of garbage cans … But here I am,” Ung said, concluding her lecture. She said she owed her fortune to the humanity of others. “Peace is not an automatic,” Ung said. “It’s not an entitlement.”