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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Safe in U.S., genocide survivor still felt soldiers' presence

By Jessica Tumbull


The Cambodia where author Loung Ung grew up was full of beauty and normal activities, such as going to the movies with her family.

But it also was one where the little girl and her family got caught up in violent political upheaval that led to genocide.

Ung, a petite woman clad in a black T-shirt with "Peace Rocks" in red lettering, spoke at an assembly in the Plum School District Friday about her experience surviving the 1970s genocide in the Southeast Asian country.

Plum students read Ung's memoir, "First They Killed My Father," in class and invited Ung to speak. Ung has written two books about her experiences and is working on a third.

Ung, 39, of Cleveland, was born in 1970 in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, one of seven children. She was 8 when the Communist group called the Khmer Rouge began executing fellow Cambodians.

Between 1975 and 1979, about 1.7 million people — or 25 percent of the population — were killed.

"I didn't know about politics. I didn't know about genocide," Ung said. "But I did know that people, little by little, would disappear from the villages."

Her father was executed by Khmer Rouge soldiers. Several months later, worried that keeping the family together hurt their chances of survival, Ung's mother told the children to leave and separate.

Her mother's hard decision is the basis for her third book.

In 1980, Ung escaped with her older brother and his wife to a refugee camp in Thailand, then was sent to Vermont.

She talked about her adjustment to life in America after living through a war that was deeply ingrained in her mind.

"When I would be trying to learn geometry for a test, the soldiers were there looking over my shoulder," she said, describing the difficulty of erasing the traumatic images even once she was safe in America.

She now works as a peace activist, and even returns to Cambodia to aid survivors.

Her main message is that peace is not a given, but a choice that takes hard work.

"We need to take responsibility for others in the world who are less fortunate," Ung said.

Sophomore Adam Albright, 16, of Plum said he liked hearing directly from the author of a book he read in class.

He said her message of peace struck him because America is perceived as a stable country where citizens don't have to worry about peace.

"It's worth fighting for," he said. "It's ironic that you have to fight for peace."

Sophomore Ian Walla, 16, of Plum said he didn't know anything about Cambodia or its war until he read Ung's book.

"It was a really inspiring story," he said. "It makes you think about other places in the world."

He said Ung's message is important so people can learn from past mistakes. He said a saying by his history teacher summed up the importance of Ung's story.

"The reason we teach history is so we don't repeat it," Walla said.

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