At a glance:
- Author: Loung Ung
- First Published: 2000
- Type of Work: Autobiography
- Genres: Nonfiction, Autobiography
It has been a quarter of a century since the Khmer Rouge marched into the Cambodian capital of Phnom Phenh and embarked on a killing frenzy that decimated nearly half of the country’s population, destroyed its infrastructure, and laid waste to a magnificent cultural heritage. Given humankind’s predilection for devouring itself and conveniently forgetting monumental acts of genocide, the world can never have too many survivors to testify to both the murderers’ actions and their victims’ lives, so that others may know and remember the truth. Loung Ung’s story, therefore, is a welcome and necessary, though heartrending, addition to the growing number of voices bearing witness to Cambodia’s Holocaust.
Loung Ung’s descent into hell begins when she is a mere five years old. Born into a picture- perfect, middle-class family, Loung (whose name auspiciously means “dragon”) is the fifth of seven children. Loung’s innocent and sheltered childhood, filled with typical sibling rivalry, trips to market for tasty treats, and play time with school chums, suddenly—and incredibly—evaporates when the Khmer Rouge evacuates Phnom Phenh on April 17, 1975. The Ungs, like other city dwellers deemed bourgeois and therefore “unclean” by Angka, Pol Pot’s ruling party, are forcibly transported in overcrowded trucks to the countryside where they are made to live under inhumane conditions with the unsympathetic Cambodian peasantry.
Eventually the most unbearable comes to pass as the family is torn apart. The two oldest brothers, Meng and Khouy, are sent off to hard labor camps. Loung’s adored older sister Keav dies of dysentery. When Khmer Rouge soldiers finally ascertain his political connections to the Lon Nol government, Loung’s father, Seng Im is abducted, never to return. Finally, her mother, Ay Choung, now a widow with three-year-old toddler Geak to care for, makes the ultimate and unthinkable maternal sacrifice by sending Loung and her remaining brother and sister into the Cambodian countryside on their own, instructing them to separate and never to return to her.
Genocidal nightmares abound. And yet, there are inexplicable miracles. Somehow the remaining Ung siblings survive landmines and refugee camps to find each other again and rebuild their lives and family. Throughout, the family’s loving kindness, dignity, and spiritual faith in the face of constant humiliation, torture, filth, and starvation is a testimony to the nobility of their collective characters.
The back jacket cover shows a photograph of Loung Ung, now an adult and National Spokesperson for the Campaign for Landmine Free World. She has a magnificent smile. Knowing the cruel realities that lie in her emotional landscape renders that smile all the more poignant—and heroic.
Did this raise a question for you?