The Cambodian human rights activist, whose autobiography is being adapted for the big screen by Angelina Jolie, talks to Andrea Lo about escaping the Khmer Rouge.
BEFORE THE STORM I grew up with three sisters and three brothers. My father was Cambodian and my mum came from Chaozhou (in Guangdong province); we were raised to speak Cambodian and Teochew. I have many good memories of Cambodia before the war. My siblings listened to Elvis Presley on their eight-track tapes. We dressed up for Chinese New Year and got red envelopes full of money.
I was five when the Khmer Rouge took over the country. There were days when we were kept from school. Now, looking back, I realise that bombs were going off in movie theatres and there were rumours that soldiers were coming. Every time that happened, my parents kept us at home. My father would entertain us by telling stories. It was good that my parents did that, because when the war happened, we were together as a family.
ALL SMILES (Khmer Rouge) soldiers came riding trucks into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975. They were wearing big smiles and telling us the war was over. People cheered at first. Then the soldiers pulled out their bullhorn and screamed for people to pack and leave. They said the Americans were coming to bomb the city and, if we didn't leave, we would be killed. We packed what we could and left, along with two million others. We left behind family photos, birth certificates and house deeds.
We walked for over seven days, sleeping on roadsides. We went to my uncle's village, but my parents knew it wasn't safe for us to remain. My father was a military police officer; my mother was Chinese; my siblings and I were educated - those things put us in danger from the revolutionary zeal of creating a country where people's value was measured by whether or not they could farm the land and support the war. We had to keep moving. The soldiers took everyone's belongings and set them on fire. I saw my Chinese New Year dress go up in flames and remember thinking that my parents are not able to protect me.
THE DISAPPEARED A year into the war, the soldiers came to the village of Ro Leap for my father. We never heard from him again. Before, I had held on to the hope that all of it had to end. I thought we would go home and everything would go back to normal.
To keep us safe, my mother separated us. My sister and I ended up at different labour camps (Loung Ung later went to a camp for child soldiers). My mother, who stayed in Ro Leap, said we had to say she was dead. This was sacrilegious because, in my culture, you don't say somebody is dead if they are still alive. It is like a prophecy - if it happens, it could be your fault. A few months later, the soldiers came for my mother and four-year-old sister (Loung Ung learned this after running away from her camp and returning to Ro Leap to look for her mother). When she died, I felt terrible. Back at camp, I kept to myself. The safest route was to be dumb, deaf, mute, blind and invisible, and to just exist, but not live.
JOURNEY TO THE WEST After the war ended, we migrated to villages protected by Vietnamese troops. I was reunited with my brother Kim Ung, who was 14, and my sister Chou Ung, who was 12. I was 10. The three of us got to an internally displaced person camp where we lived until our older siblings arrived months later. (With her older brother Meng Ung) it took days to get to Vietnam. There, we lived on a houseboat for a few months while waiting for a people-smuggling boat. We crossed the sea for three days and arrived at a refugee camp in Thailand. Six months later, in 1980, we (Loung Ung, Meng Ung and his wife, Eang Ung) were sponsored by the American Holy Family Church group to go to Vermont (in the United States).
SCARS OF WAR Everything was strange in Vermont. There was the language, the land and the food, and then there was the emotional aspect. I felt a lot of guilt about leaving my family behind. I spent a lot of hours studying. It was difficult to do when your mind and heart are still in Cambodia. Every July 4, I had a hard time. Fireworks made me think of the war. I found the physical changes of puberty painful and, as a result, psychologically, it made me afraid of war. No one had told me that the sight of blood would trigger a post-traumatic stress disorder episode. Every month, I thought I was either dead or dying. Many times, I wanted to put myself to sleep forever. I didn't, because I couldn't bear the thought of my niece being the one to discover my body.
PARALLEL LIVES In 1998, I was in Washington DC working with Veterans International on eradicating landmines. The Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot had died. People said he was charismatic, grandfatherly. I wanted to negate that legacy. (Her 2000 autobiography) First They Killed My Father is about a girl who grew up in a war no one knew about. The Vietnam war was called "the war in Southeast Asia" while the Cambodian war was referred to as a "sideshow" - that was the name of a book by William Shawcross - but for me, it was the main stage.
I have thought a lot about what my life would be like if the war hadn't happened - that's why I wrote my second book, Lucky Child. It chronicles my life in America and my sister's in Cambodia in alternating chapters. When I was in junior high, my goal was to get a date for prom. My sister had an arranged marriage and gave birth to five children. If I hadn't left Cambodia, I would have been living that life.
STAR TURN Angelina Jolie and I met 10 years ago. She was in Cambodia while I was there working on the landmines campaign. We stayed in touch (Jolie is set to direct a film adaptation of Loung Ung's autobiography). I have great respect for her talent, integrity and humanity.
Some day, my husband and I will probably move back to Cambodia. I've done many things well and many things not well, but I've never not done things.
Loung Ung was in Hong Kong to speak to students at the Hong Kong International School about the Cambodian war.