During a road trip in the United States of America a few years ago, Loung Ung and
her friends became stuck in traffic for a few hours. While the others in the car
grew bored and irritable, Loung descended into a state of panic.
Author and landmine campaigner Loung Ung, in Phnom Penh
17 August 2000
"I was hyperventilating - I thought I was going to die because I was so hungry,"
Loung said. "When I get hungry it's the most visceral emotion. It brings me
right back to the war."
Loung left Cambodia as a refugee in 1980 and went to America with her older brother,
Meng. She left behind her sister and three brothers, returning to see them for the
first time 15 years later.
Loung was recently in Phnom Penh to visit her home town and promote her new book.
First They Killed My Father is the memoir of the five-year-old child who, with her
family, friends and neighbors, was herded out of Phnom Penh and into the countryside
in April 1975, to work for the glory of Pol Pot's terrifying Angkar, or "organization".
The book documents the loss of Loung's beloved father, who had been an official in
Lon Nol's government, her mother, and two sisters, 16-year-old Keav and infant Geak.
It explains her continuing fear of hunger, as she, like millions of others, slowly
starved during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
The war that claimed Loung's childhood has also shaped the direction of her adult
life, and she is now the spokesperson for Campaign for a Landmine Free World, a Vietnam
Veterans of America Foundation program.
On that first visit back to Cambodia in 1995 she was devastated by the war's appalling
legacy - a country riddled with landmines that killed and maimed hundreds of people
"All those people and everything they did to survive ... and now that they have
survived the war, they are having a hard time surviving the peace because of landmines,"
"85 per cent of people [in Cambodia] are farmers, and it's evil that people
have to keep worrying about their safety 20 years after the war is over."
Now 30 and living permanently in the USA, Loung travels regularly to Cambodia where
she meets with landmine victims and listens to the stories of their fateful encounters
with landmines and their efforts to rebuild their lives.
She describes one woman she met recently who had travelled to Phnom Penh from a town
up near the Vietnamese border, to be fitted with her first prosthetic leg in 25 years.
She had been propping herself up on a wooden log in order to work in the rice fields,
and spent each day in excruciating pain.
She was one of many land- mine victims living in rural Cambodia who are unaware that
they can come to Phnom Penh to be fitted with a custom prosthetic limb, free of charge.
The Kien Khleang Physical Rehabilitation Center, opened in 1992, has provided more
than 50,000 artificial limbs to physically impaired Cambodians.
On an international level, Loung works to encourage countries such as Vietnam, India,
South Korea and China to cease the production and sale of land mines, and to convince
the United States to sign the 1997 international Mine Ban Treaty.
"After the negotiators and the diplomats and researchers leave the conferences
in Switzerland, in [Washington] DC, in Norway, they're safe," she said. "But
people in 70 countries - 26,000 people a year - are still stepping on landmines."
Loung sees her future centering upon human rights work and expresses an interest
in playing a non-official documentation role in the possible upcoming Khmer Rouge
Having been trained as a child soldier by the Khmer Rouge, Loung taught herself to
channel her fear into anger in order to make herself strong enough to survive.
Every page of her book reminds the reader that she was just one of thousands of children
who were brutalized by the Khmer Rouge and forced into back-breaking, soul-destroying
labor, often seeing their parents led away by soldiers, never to return. She describes
the shattered world of a starving five-year-old girl, who watches the slow destruction
of her home and her people.
"Cambodians are really beautiful, strong, resilient people," Loung said.
"People see the strength and courage in me ... but if you spend time talking
to people, you see that in them. What you see in me, you will find in a lot of Cambodians."