[BOOKS] Loung Ung's 1st They Killed My Father: Daughter of Cambodia Remembers
- March 19, 2000
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers
by Loung Ung
BRIAN LAMB, host: Loung Ung, why did you call your book, "First They
Killed My Father"?
Ms. LOUNG UNG (Author, "First They Killed My Father"): Well, though
my sister--I had a sister that passed away and died from starvation
s--my father's death affected me tremendously, and I wanted just to
put it out there. I wanted to put it out there that that's what
happened to us first, and then it went on after that.
LAMB: And where is this photograph from that you have on the cover of
Ms. UNG: This is a picture of me when I had just got off the boat in
Thailand at--at the refugee camp, and they snapped that picture of me
as--as we were going in and giving us a number. So I was 10 years
old, just off the boat in Thailand.
LAMB: What year did you come to the United States?
Ms. UNG: 1980.
LAMB: And where did you come when you first got here?
Ms. UNG: Essex Junction, Vermont. I--it's--I remember being in the
refugee camp, and there were people going in--and--and was trying to
tell us what our new home was going to be like. And most of them
missionary people, and one of the ways they--they did that was they
would bring in movies and show it to refugees. And the--the movies
that made it to Asia were all--all took place in Eld--either LA, San
Francisco or New York, and--and then we landed in Essex.
LAMB: At what age?
Ms. UNG: I was 10 years old.
LAMB: And how long have you lived there?
Ms. UNG: I was in--in Vermont until about '93, and then I left and
moved to Maine, a bit more diversity. And in '97, I moved to DC.
LAMB: And the--what kind of a college degree did you get? Where?
Ms. UNG: I have a political science--bachelor in political science
from St. Michael's College in Vermont.
LAMB: I want to go into a rough part of this book, only because I
know as I read the book this--this stopped me and--and--and it's
brutal, but I want to read it a little bit of it anyway. You say,
`The old woman's hands shake as she raises the hammer high above her
head and brings it crashing down into the prisoner's skull. He
screams a loud shill--shrill cry that pierces my heart like a stake,
and I imagine that this maybe is how Pa died.' Where are we in this
story at that point?
Ms. UNG: The Vietnamese had invaded Cambodia in '79, and I am
staying with my brothers and--and sister at the internally displaced
camp and--internally displaced people's camp that the Vietnamese were
setting up. They had caught a Pol Pot or--or a Khmer Rouge member.
The Vietnamese had put him in prison, but the people rioted and
demanded his release, and they actually--in the end, the Vietnamese
soldiers gave him over to the people, and they had a public
They had a public exe--and I was nine years old when I witnessed my
first public execution.
LAMB: And you also write, `The soldier's head hangs, bobbing up and
down like a chicken's. Blood gushes out of his wound, flowing down
his forehead, ears and--and dripping from his chin. The woman raises
the hammer again. I almost feel pity for him, but it is too late to
let him go. It's too late to go back. It's too late for my parents
and my country.' Do--do you--as you hear those words--and you
obviously wrote them--do you feel that moment? Can you still see it?
Ms. UNG: Yes. It's--you wished you didn't see it. I've spent so
many years wishing I never saw it, but I saw it and it's been
imprinted indelibly into my brain. And I've tried many years to get
it out. It's too late. It was too late for them, and it was too late
LAMB: What's this done to you?
Ms. UNG: It's definitely left a life-long scar. The physical side
of it: that I grew up very paranoid, I grew up very afraid. I grew
up with a lot of hatred, and I grew up wanting to hurt other people.
And that is--I've come to America and met really nice people and
learned that people really are terrific, they really are kind and
they are not mean, that they're not out to kill me. You've got to
heal that part. But the part that never healed: the fact that I miss
my father, I miss my mother, I miss my sisters, and that never will
LAMB: I want to go back and talk about all those folks in a moment.
I just first want to hold up this map here. For those who have never
been in that part of the world, where is Cambodia? And how many
people lived there when you lived there?
Ms. UNG: Cambodia borders Thai--Vietnam, Laos and--and Thailand, as
we can see. And when I was there in '75, the population of Cambodia
was approximately seven million people.
LAMB: And where were you born?
Ms. UNG: I was born in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
LAMB: What kind of a city is it?
Ms. UNG: It's a Third World country. It's a bustling city. I can
remember just in--in--we have tall buildings. However, our buildings
were two- or three-story high only. We had paved roads, lots of
vendors on a street. It's--it's just one of those very bustling
cities. People wake up at five in the morning. It's very hot; it can
get up to 100, 110 degrees and humid. And so people wake up very
early, and then they set up shops on the side streets. And the
parents would go every day--because there are no refrigerators--and
shop. Kids go to school. And for me, I spent my days playing
hopscotch outside of my house, walking around and eating a lot of
food. One of my favorite was roasted cricket. And my sis and I spent
a lot of time just playing ball and playing hopscotch on the
LAMB: You have up front in the book a family chart from 1975. And
you can see on there your mother and father are listed and your uncle
and--a couple of your uncles. But over here, your brothers and
sisters--and it starts up there at the top, the 18-year-old.
Ms. UNG: Yes.
LAMB: Where is he?
Ms. UNG: He is in Vermont. He's living in Vermont with his wife and
two children now. Khouy, the second one, my second brother, is in
Cambodia. He's married and now has six children. Keav--she didn't
survive the war. Kim is--has been living in France for the last 13
years, but the immigration papers finally got processed, and as of
this past Saturday, he just moved to Vermont to live with my brother
in--in--Meng. And Chou is in Cambodia, married with five children.
And, of course, myself, I'm here in DC. And Geak, my little sister,
did not make it through the war.
LAMB: She the first to go?
Ms. UNG: She was--actually, no. Keav was the first to go, my older
LAMB: Yeah. How did your--how did your older sister die?
Ms. UNG: She was living at a war camp at that moment, one of many
war camps that the Khmer Rouge had, and she was--she had ate some
poisonous food and--and her body just started giving out. And--and I
think she had--I don't even know what the--the correct word is in
Eng--English, but she had diarrhea and a lot of other poison food
symptoms. And--and they sent her to the infirmary, and--and when we
were told about it and when my father went--my parents went to
retrieve her, she had already died.
LAMB: How old was she at the time?
Ms. UNG: She was barely 15.
LAMB: And you were how old then?
Ms. UNG: I was--I was--oh, I should think I was six and a half years
LAMB: And you know that a lot of people who have written about the
book wonder how you can remember all this stuff in detail. How did
you reconstruct the story? When was the first time you did it?
Ms. UNG: For me, it's a story that wouldn't go away. When I
was--when I was 16 or 15--I--I came to America as a 10-year-old, and
in America, I--I didn't want this. I didn't want this face. I didn't
want this mind. I didn't want the memory. I wanted--I wanted to be
jazzy. I wanted to be an all-American girl. I wanted to be normal.
I wanted amnesia. I played soccer, hit my head with the ball so many
times. And then I learned that getting amnesia in real life is a lot
more difficult than on soap opera--soap opera shows. That's how I was
learning English. I'd watched "Guiding Light," you know, the TV
shows. And I succeeded in--in suppressing the memory for the most
part. You know, at night, there were nightmares. During the
daytimes, I was pretty well adjusted.
But when I turned 15, around that age, all of a sudden my body
developing. All of a sudden I wasn't a child anymore and I couldn't
hide behind being a child. And all--and--and when that happened, when
my body changed, it did something to my mind. All of a sudden, the
me--the memories started--came flooding out, and I didn't know what
do with it.
It was the first time I went through a severe depression. I had--I
had a nervous breakdown, basically. I was on the brink of suicide. I
didn't--didn't know what to do with it. And there were no one to talk
to. There weren't any other Cambodians there in Vermont--Essex
Junction, Vermont. The counselor I saw, I felt like I was giving more
of a history lesson. I didn't feel like I could talk to anybody.
And a teacher of mine, a Mr. Severens, encouraged me to write. He
encouraged me to write because I wrote my story in an essay, and it
came back with an A+++ on it without any red marks for bad and
incorrect grammar. And that was the time I wrote that first draft. I
wrote it six months later. You know, I wrote it through dinner, I
wrote at night, I wrote in class. I had over 200 pages of handwritten
materials, and most of that were stream-of-consciousness writing. And
that is really the first draft of the book. I took that journal and
diary and then made it into the book.
In turning it into a real book, of course, I've had to go a lot
and--and look at the history. I had to restudy it. I went back to
Cambodia four times last year and talked to my siblings and my
and my aunts. I had--my brothers all contributed informations. My
brother Khouy in Cambodia wrote 100 page, approximately, of our
history and our life in Khmer. And then my brother Meng in Vermont,
because I--I don't--I don't know how to write Khmer very well, he had
to translate it into English. And in a way, this--this is a family
LAMB: Couple of things. When you see Khmer Rouge, what's that mean,
Ms. UNG: The Communist guerilla group--the Communist guerilla group
in--in Cambodia that took over the country in 1975, that defeated the
government in 1995, which--the Lon Nol government. So they were the
Red Cambodians. Khmer is--is--is Cambodian. Rouge is red. And,
supposedly, they were a color of red. They were a color for passion,
meaning that they loved us and they loved the country.
LAMB: Cambodia's history includes ever being a colony?
Ms. UNG: Yes, it was a French colony.
Ms. UNG: It was a French colony in the early 1900s. Yeah. I
don't--unfortunately, I don't have the specific date on my--in my
LAMB: For how long?
Ms. UNG: For about--I believe about 100 years.
LAMB: And the name Sihanouk...
Ms. UNG: Yes.
LAMB: ...we've--saw a lot of that back in the '70s. Prince Sihanouk.
Who is he?
Ms. UNG: He was the king--he's now king of Cambodia, and he was
prince of Cambodia then. He was put in--on the throne of being king
of Cambodia when he was--at the young age of 19. But then he
abducted--he abdicated his throne to be prince in order to work in
poli--to be involved in politics.
LAMB: Have you ever met him?
Ms. UNG: No.
LAMB: You say in--in the early part of the book that two million
Ms. UNG: Yes.
Ms. UNG: The Khmer Rouge, during its reign from April 17th, 1975, to
the first few weeks of January in '79, in--in their three years,
months and 21 days' reign, 1.5 million to 2 million people died due
starvations, disease, forced labor and execution.
Ms. UNG: That's a really good question. I wish I knew the answer
for sure. There are a lot of theories out there. The Khmer Rouge,
when they took over the country in 199--1975, I was in Phnom Penh. I
was playing hopscotch. And I remember just fighting with my sister
and playing hopscotch. I mean, one of the other things that my--my
sister and I used to do a lot was--in Cambodia, it's very hot, in a
tropal country--a tropical country. There are a lot of black ants.
And one thing that--that we used to do a lot was we would watch the
ants march from one place to another. And--as any other children in
any other country, we had a magnifying glass, and we knew what to do
with it. And we would tilt it to the sun when we got bored and killed
When the Khmer Rouge came into the country, they ordered everybody
outside of the--of--of the city to move to live in the countryside.
Phnom Penh, at the time, was a popu--a city of a population of two
million people. I remember all of us pouring into the street, like
black ants being marched from one place to another. We didn't know
where we were going to end up. We didn't know where we were going.
And those with power--no longer my sister and I with our
gla--magnifying glasses. There were soldiers with guns standing on
either side of us.
And--and for us, that was a four-year death march. The Khmer Rouge
moved everybody from the city to live in the countryside because they
had hoped to build a country, an agricultural culture, where
would--society would be classless and--and casteless. People were
made to work in the fields every day in our lives for--during those
years. And, first of all, Cambodia at that point was turned into a
virtual prison. We didn't have walls, but it was a prison.
The laborers and the villages that we lived in were more like labor
camps. In these camps every day was a Monday; every Monday a workday.
There was no looking forward to hump day on Wednesday. There was no
Friday. There was no Saturday. There was no Sunday. There were no
holidays. Every day was a workday. Each workday, 12, 16 hours. And
that was their way of wanting to create an agricultural society. And
people were overworked and they were not fed, so they died due to
LAMB: Who was Lon Nol?
Ms. UNG: Lon Nol was the su--was--was the government that was put
into power when Sihanouk was overthrown in 1970.
LAMB: And on this page--and you've got some photographs in
here--there are people that I know you knew well. Who are they?
Ms. UNG: My father is the lone--the--the two lone pictures on
the--on your left. Picture of my mother. And you can see she was
very beautiful, and she was 5'7", towers over most Cambodians and was
considered an Amazon in our culture. My father, picture below
h--hers. She--he was a captain in the military police and even during
the Lon Nol time worked as the Royal Secret Service. And then in the
right, my--a picture of my mother on the left with my--with her
sister, and another younger picture of my father, which is the
on the left.
LAMB: Now what were your parents doing when you all left that first
time from Phnom Penh?
Ms. UNG: To survive, we knew right away that we would be in danger.
We knew right away because the Khmer Rouge culture at that time, they
only valued those--the people who could basically grow rice, work in
the land. Those were the people had--that had any worth. The rest of
us were easily destroyed, didn't mean anything, were easily
dispensable. We knew we were in danger because one of my father's
political positions and in being a military police. We also knew we
would in dang--be--be in danger because we're part Chinese and we're
lot lighter in skin and that we were educated. We all spoke a couple
of different languages.
And most of all, we didn't know how to work the land. We didn't know
how to work the land. We--when we left the country, we posed as
peasants. We posed--my father lied and said that he was--he worked as
a person at the port carrying things from one place to another. My
mother was a seller in a market. We--we posed as peasants and hide
LAMB: And your--you were--you say you were middle class at the time.
Did you--for instance, in your--how big a home did you live in in
Ms. UNG: We had a big house. I mean, of course, in--in comparison
to the US, it was probably a--a small house, but it was--it was nice.
I mean, I had a bedroom that I shared with my three sisters, and
my--my brother had their own bedrooms. And we had a living room. We
had a kitchen. Yes, we--nice stairs and--and tiles. We had
everything we needed and want. We...
LAMB: The picture there on top, who's in that?
Ms. UNG: That's my mother holding a sister and my two brothers, and
sitting is my grandmother and my mother's sister and brother.
LAMB: And that's in the home?
Ms. UNG: Yes.
LAMB: Did you--did your parents have help? Was there a maid?
Ms. UNG: Yes. And I was--I was a very spoiled child, and I--I--the
only thing I had to concern myself with was going to school three
times a day. I went to Chinese school, I went to Khmer school, I went
to French school. And all the chores--we had some maids, helpers, to
do it all for us.
LAMB: What's this photograph up here?
Ms. UNG: That's a great photograph. That's a picture of my
brother--my--my three sisters and my brother, and I think
LAMB: Which one are you in this?
Ms. UNG: I am the smallest one. I'm the one with the attitude.
It's--it--it brings me so much joy to--to look at them because for 17
years I never knew what I looked like as a kid. We didn't have--the
only picture I had of myself for 17 years in America was the picture
of the front cover of the book.
LAMB: What's this picture right down here?
Ms. UNG: That's a picture of my sister--my sisters, and I'm the one
with--without shoes a--and pants.
LAMB: Where were these photographs during your first 17 years?
Ms. UNG: They were hidden. We didn't--17 years I was in America.
The only picture I had of myself was the cover of the book, and it
doesn't look so war-torn and ragged. That's the only picture I could
remember and the pic--only picture I had of me.
When I decided to turn--to write the book, I went back to Cambodia,
went back and talked to the villagers and were able to find pictures.
Some of them had cut the pictures and gave them to us. And my brother
had gone back to the apartment we lived in, in Phnom Penh--other
people had moved in and since claimed it to be their home. But they
actually kept the pictures. We left so quickly that everything was
still about. And when they came back and took the--the apartment,
they kept the pictures--miraculous--an--and gave it to us.
LAMB: Who's this?
Ms. UNG: That's my sister Chou when she was 18 in--that was her--on
her wedding day, looking beautiful and golden.
LAMB: What was--when you--you left in '75, can you remember leaving
Phnom Penh yourself? Can you remember physically walking out?
Ms. UNG: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: How far did you have to walk?
Ms. UNG: Eight days. I don't physically remember it--the days. I
remember the walk. And my brothers were able to fill me in with the
days and--and dates later. I was five years old and didn't want to
walk. I want to play--I want to walk when I want to walk. I want to
run when I want to run, but I didn't want to go on a death march.
LAMB: How many people were walking with you?
Ms. UNG: Two million people from Phnom Penh left. In a span of 72
hours, they emptied a city of two million people down to maybe a
couple of thousand people who stay--who--who--with the Khmer Rouge
and--let stay behind to do their work.
LAMB: Did you know where you were going?
Ms. UNG: No. As far as I--almost as far as I can see in front of me
and behind me, there were always people. They were always pots
clanging against each other, kids crying, people talking, and the
shuffling of feet on gravel; always people dragging as far as--as far
as you could see.
LAMB: What were you wearing?
Ms. UNG: The same outfit I wore for--for seven days. I--I had on--I
think a pair of--of yellow shorts and shirt, which turned gray after
eight days of not having a place to sleep an--and wash.
LAMB: What would you eat?
Ms. UNG: In the beginning, my mother and father were very, very
smart. Even the Khmer Rouge said us to pack as little as we can to
sustain for three days and then we can return. My father packed a lot
of food. He packed all the rice we had and some canned food and--and
other preserved meats. We ate that for a while but there were nine of
us. There were nine of us and--and we finally ran out of food. And
whenever we stopped for the evening, my brother and--and my father
and--and other older siblings would just scrounge the countryside for
food and pick berries and roots and--and whatever they can find.
LAMB: Where did you end up?
Ms. UNG: We ended up in the first village, Krang Truop, which was
where my uncle and aunts were living at.
LAMB: And what was life like there and how long did you stay there?
Ms. UNG: We stayed there for a few months. My uncle was considered
part of a base people group. During the Khmer Rouge regime, people
were separated into basically two categories. There were the base
people, full-fledged citizen of the Khmer society. They were
considered the indispensable group. They--they--it--being base meant
that they always lived in the countryside. They've never lived in
the--the city to be corrupted by Western and foreign influence. And
so they--they were considered to be the pure Khmer.
And then there were the new people like myself who all evacuated from
the cities. And there were many other cities in Cambodia and they
were all evacuated. So my uncle had certain privilege in the village
because he was a base--base--he was a base person. When we first
lived there, we, of course, pretended to be peasants. No one knew
what--who we we--really were and every day my father would go
an--my--my father, mother and siblings would go and work in the field
and my sister and I would--went and take the cows to pasture in--in
LAMB: How long before--at what point in this process did your sister
Ms. UNG: My sister died probably a year into the Khmer Rouge. She
died it--when we moved to another village, actually.
LAMB: Why did you move to another village?
Ms. UNG: When the--new people were always arriving and they were
always being ele--being located--being moved from one village to
another. And every time ne--a new--a new family or new families come
into the village, we always held our breath. We always hoped it's
people we didn't know. And at one point, someone from--one of the new
families that came into the village where we're at, we actually
thought that we kind of knew them. We weren't sure. They looked
familiar, but we couldn't take the risk. We coul--we weren't sure if
they traveled in the same circle we did or lived in Phnom Penh or
knew my father. But we couldn't take the risk. And every time we
thought someone might come in that would recognize us, we would
LAMB: And where'd you go? What was the next village?
Ms. UNG: We went to the next village--we went to Ro Leap.
LAMB: How far away was that?
Ms. UNG: You know, on--on the trek I think it took us a day to get
there. And, of course, during this time--the whole time, during the
Khmer Rouge regime, for the four years, calendar was banned, clocks,
any kind of machineries that tell times were banned--radio, TV,
newspaper, gatherings, meetings. So--and again, every day was a
Monday. We really didn't know month to month, day to day and we could
only tell from the sun in the sky or the moon in the--position of the
moon in the sky. But it--it took us a day to get there, I think.
LAMB: When did your dad die?
Ms. UNG: He...
LAMB: And how old was he at that time?
Ms. UNG: ...was 42. He--he died a year into it.
LAMB: One year into being--OK, were--were you in Ro Leap?
Ms. UNG: Yes. Approximately one year into it.
LAMB: How'd it happen?
Ms. UNG: We'd been hiding. We'd been hiding and we were pretty
successful at it and--you know, I--I was six and we'd been living for
about a year under this hiding and--and safe. And I--I--I got to a
point I even fooled myself into thinking that maybe we were safe. It
was complete shock when two soldiers came and they asked for my
father--they asked for my father and my father asked why and they
they needed to take my--they needed my father to go with them to move
an ox cart out of the mud that was stuck an--and they were traveling
with. And--and we asked them when my father was going to come back
and--and they said tomorrow. He didn't come back tomorrow. He didn't
come back the next day. We found out a few days later that he was
LAMB: D--do you remember that? Clearly remember that--that whole
Ms. UNG: I'm trying not to at the moment. Yes.
LAMB: How do you--I mean, how often have you had to tell the story?
Ms. UNG: Quite a few times.
LAMB: And it's still hard.
Ms. UNG: Yes, it's still deathly hard.
LAMB: How'd--do you--do you want to tell the story?
Ms. UNG: I do. I do.
LAMB: And why?
Ms. UNG: Why? I just didn't want to give them my mind. They might
have won their battle for four years, they might have succeed taking
four of my families, but they're not going to have my mind.
LAMB: And how did you fight this as--did you even fight it as a five-
and six-year-old? I mean, were you conscious of this then?
Ms. UNG: Yes. I was conscious of wanting to live because my father
wanted me to live. I want--I was conscious of wanting to do what he
wanted me to do. Living--I don't know if it was ever--I don't know if
I ever said to myself, `I'm going to defeat them. I'm going to win.
I'm going to live. Certainly it was--if something happened to me, my
parents would be very sad. It would be a betrayal to my father--it
would be a complete betrayal to my father. And God darn it, I'm just
too hungry to even think about it so I'm going to go and get some
LAMB: What was he like?
Ms. UNG: My father was--he was a great man. He was--he--he--he
loved me and--and that was so wonder--that was wh--what kept me alive
is I knew that my parents were so completely in love with me. Of
course, now back--I was five years old and I'm--and the world
around me, and I'm sure a lot of other children felt that way, but I
was the sixth children of seven. My little sister was still a baby
and she was cute. I was five. I was cute enough to be everybody's
favorite. I was cute enough to know how to manipulate people. I was
cute enough to know how to be cute, and I was very well-loved.
My father thought I was very special. I'm sure everybody--every
foddy--father thinks that, but I believed him 'cause he always tells
the truth. My father encouraged me to be precocious and to be clever
and--and to run around and ask questions, whereas my mother always
kind of worried about grow--me being able to grow up to be a proper
lady, to speak properly, to walk properly, to sit properly. My father
said, you know, `Do whatever you want to do, just have a good time.
Just come back at night. Don't get lost.'
LAMB: What was the reaction to your family when you knew that you'd
lost your father?
Ms. UNG: That night, we waited. It was devastating. It was
devastating, 'cause my father was the brick of the family. I mean, he
was--he was our strength. He was our mind. He was the glue that kept
us together, and we didn't know if we would be able to make it
LAMB: So what'd you do?
Ms. UNG: My bro--my older brothers were already at work camps at
that moment, and my mother--my mother knew that--and--and the--she
must've had discussions with my father, and I know she did. They knew
that--that the Khmer Rouge weren't going to stop at my father. They
were going to go after all of us. The paranoia was such that they
were afraid the children of the people they took away would rise up
and rebel. And she knew that if we wanted to survive, we had to split
and separate, so she gathered all of the siblings together, those
were still there--I was barely eight, my sister was barely 10, my
brother was barely 12, and my other sister was--was four--and she
said, `It's time for you to go. I don't want you--I can't have you
here. You go north, you go south, you go east, you go west. Walk
until you get to an orphanage camp.' And by that time, there were
or--many, many orphanage camps all around the country. `When you get
there, change your name. Don't tell each other. Don't come back.'
I was so angry at her. I felt so--I felt so rejected. I felt that my
father loved me and wanted me, and my mother sent--was sending me
when I needed her most. And I got--and I stayed angry with her for
many, many years. I stayed angry with her, 'cause I thought it was a
weakness. I thought it was a n--a weakness. In writing the book, I
now come to realize that that was an incredible act of courage to
all--out your kids and not knowing--into the war zone and not knowing
if they would come back alive, hurt, tortured, but you had to let
go for that slim chance that they might live. That was an incredible
courage. And I--I--I have--you know, I--I'm an adult. I have my
place. I can--I can't imagine doing that, but it took me many years
to understand that.
And now al--I also understand in writing that--and I didn't then--
as a mother, she knew me--and she must've--she--she knew me a lot
more--a lot better than I knew myself. And she knew the buttons to
push to make me go away, to make me come back. And she must've known
that if she had shown any emotions and she had shown any resistance
not wanting to g--send us away, we would've clinged to her.
LAMB: Where'd you go?
Ms. UNG: I ended up going to an--an orphanage camp and--and it...
LAMB: Which one?
Ms. UNG: And orig--I--I was first at a camp with--an orphanage camp
with my sister, where we worked in a field, but then people were
always making fun of me and--and taunting me and I got into a big
fight. And the--the su--supervisor of the camp saw this and--and
loved it--and loved it. And then she took me off and put me into sort
of a military training camp, or for lack of a better word to describe
it, a child soldier training camp. It--we didn't have such words to
describe it then. All I knew was that they saw the rage in me. They
saw the hatred in me and they wanted to foster that. And so they took
the--an eight-year-old and--they took me at that time, put me in the
camp where they put weapons into my hand--knives, guns, ax, axes,
hoes--and then they taught me and--and encouraged me to even be
more--to e--to be even more hateful.
LAMB: Did--did--but go back to when your mom wanted all the--your
siblings to leave.
Ms. UNG: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: How many left?
Ms. UNG: We--there were only four of us with her, and three of us
left and the youngest one stayed behind with her.
LAMB: What's the name of the youngest one?
Ms. UNG: Geak.
Ms. UNG: Yes, Geak.
LAMB: And the--the three that left...
Ms. UNG: Yes?
LAMB: ...who were they?
Ms. UNG: Gim left, and Ju and I left.
LAMB: And this is a picture from where?
Ms. UNG: This is a picture in Cambodia. That's Ju, and then--and...
LAMB: The tall one in the middle. And--the--the--the...
Ms. UNG: Yes, the--the one in the white shirt with the black pants,
the beautiful woman. And she's still living in Cambodia and--it's her
children, the girl on the right, and--and she's still there and she's
the--the one also--on a--the one that got married. She's still in
Cambodia. She and I left together.
LAMB: What's--was the religion of your family?
Ms. UNG: We were Buddhist.
LAMB: What did that mean?
Ms. UNG: For us, it means--I--I--I'm not a practices--practicing
Buddhist at--at the moment. I--I kind of lost faith when--when my
father was killed. But for my father and my family, it meant that we,
as human beings, were part divine. God is not something that's
outside of us. God is not something that will come and save us. We,
in--within ourselves, can become God, if we practice nirvana and
practice our mind and meditate.
LAMB: When you were going through all this back in the early years,
did your family use the religion at all?
Ms. UNG: My father did. My father did. I don't know if the younger
kids did--and I--I didn't remember seeing my mother, but my
father--religion--religion was banned, so if you were caught
practicing religion, you were persecuted or could be killed. But
every once in a while, I could see my father going outside
when--when--when it's dark and sit underne--on--on the grass and look
up at the sky and meditate and pray.
LAMB: Now go back again to when you were dispersing. Where did--you
know, how far did you go from where your mother was living at that
Ms. UNG: I estimated I must've been half a day's walk away. And,
again, at that time, there were no clocks, there were no calendars,
the only way I could tell time was the position of the sun in the
but I believe it's--it's probably half a day's walk, four or five
LAMB: Did you go by yourself?
Ms. UNG: At first, I went with my three brothers, my--my--my brother
Gim and Ju. And then Gim split off, and Ju and I just couldn't
separate, so we stayed together and we went to a first camp. And we
didn't want to separate, until the supervisor saw that I--I--that
wanted--they wanted to put me into another camp and she forced me to
LAMB: How long were you in the labor camps?
Ms. UNG: About a year.
LAMB: And they trained you to--to--to kill people?
Ms. UNG: They trained me to kill enemies. An enemy meant everybody
out there that were against the government. Besides from the physical
training, which is fairly easy--it's easy to put some kind of weapon
in a child's hand and say, `Do this and then I'll give you some
It's Pavlovian conditioning. But the mental training, the
brainwashing that went on forever, every day, many hours each day,
that was--that was hard to fight sometimes. That was hard to fight,
because each morning and afternoon, you would sit and they would have
all these propaganda messages, and then they would feel the hatred.
And a lot of people believed that.
And the hatred is that we, the children of Cambodia, were pure.
Everybody else wer--out there were corrupted, the adults. We were
pure. We were going to be the savior of the--the Anka of the
Khmer--Khmer Rouge--Khmer Rouge government, and that we were
everything, that we were the most special. And because of that,
because we're the future of the government, because everybody knew
that we were going to be the ones to take the government to a higher
place, they were all going to try and kill us.
LAMB: Now Cambodia, as we showed on the map, is in the middle
of--Thailand on one side, Vietnam on the other...
Ms. UNG: Yeah. Yeah.
LAMB: ...Laos up above.
Ms. UNG: Yes.
LAMB: Did you see any Laos or Vietnamese or Thai people in Cambodia
during this time?
Ms. UNG: Not in the village I was at. No.
LAMB: And how--you say your family was--What?
Ms. UNG: Part Chinese.
LAMB: Par--part Chinese. How much Chinese in the family?
Ms. UNG: My father is half-Chinese and my mother's full Chinese.
LAMB: Born in China?
Ms. UNG: My mother was born in China, yes.
LAMB: And how many different skin colors are there in a place like
Ms. UNG: Before the war, there were a--lots of different skin color.
There were definitely Thai there. There were a lot of Vietnamese
there and a lot of--of just mixed-raced people.
LAMB: But you talk about you were light-skinned, white...
Ms. UNG: We were light-skinned.
LAMB: Would people be very dark?
Ms. UNG: People would be much darker. They would have curlier hair.
And you can recognize a--a Cambodian--a pure-raised Cambodian
than--than the rest of us. They would have a lot of--a lot of Khmera
would have darker lips, wider features, fuller features, where I
the Chinese and Vietnamese tend to have a smaller, slen--more slender
And, of course, it's the skin color, but that got harder to
harder--harder and harder to recognize for two specific reasons. One,
we were out in the sun every day, 10 hours a day, so we all got
darkened. And two, by years later on, a lot of the Chinese and a lot
of the Vietnamese were executed. They were the first groups to be
LAMB: How tall are you today?
Ms. UNG: 5'2".
LAMB: And if--when you go back to Cambodia, is 5'2" tall or short
or--how does it fit in?
Ms. UNG: It's pretty tall. It's pretty--yeah.
LAMB: In Cambodia?
Ms. UNG: In Cambodia. I'm--I'm actually taller than the--I--than
I--I--for the most part, there are people that are taller than me,
I feel--I feel a little bigger. My mother was 5' 6" and my--5'7".
My--my--my uncle, on my parents' sides, were 5'10", 5'11" and I
think--I think the war stunted our growth, most definitely.
LAMB: Was there a discrimination inside Cambodia, based on skin
color, when you lived there?
Ms. UNG: Before the war, there were probably--I did--I didn't
remember it, 'cause I was part of the privileged class. And, of
course, we also had more money and--and that--you tend to not see the
other side of--of life. During the Khmer Rouge, there was definitely
discriminations. I was called--and I--I was teased a lot and taunted
a lot by the other Khmera children, because I had skin--I had lighter
skin. And there were times when I would just try and darken my skin
with mud and try to put mud in my hair so that I would appear more
Khmera and less Chinese.
LAMB: Now you--your mother and father and seven kids in the family.
Ms. UNG: Yes.
LAMB: You lost your sister.
Ms. UNG: I lost one sister. I lost Gial, one sister, Kiav.
LAMB: And then you lost your father.
Ms. UNG: I lost my father and my mother and another young sister,
LAMB: Go to the situation with your mother. When did your mother die
and under what circumstances?
Ms. UNG: My--when I left the village--when she sent me away and
forced me to go away, actually, I went to the orphanage camp and--and
I just remember one situation. I think it's probably a year after I
left. I just remember feeling just something wrong. My body was
crying out. There was just--there was just pain. My mind was just
hurting. And I snuck out of my camp and I went to see her in the
village, and I found out that the Khmer Rouge soldiers had come and
taken her and my little sister.
LAMB: Do you know why?
Ms. UNG: I'm assuming because they--they are the--real--no reason.
They took so many people. They were--maybe put the connections with
my father--maybe it was because of my father; maybe she wasn't
contributing enough to working in the field; maybe my little sister
cried too much; maybe they were sickly anyway and so the soldiers and
the government didn't want to have to go on feeding them, if they're
not working in the fields. I don't know.
LAMB: Are you sure that--that both your mother and father are dead?
Ms. UNG: Yes.
LAMB: How do you know?
Ms. UNG: I haven't found their bodies. We don't know what happened
to them for sure. I know they loved us. We were their world. They
would've done anything for us. There's no way in hell that if they
lived, 20 years later, 10 years later, 10--five months later that
would not cross hell, they would not cross land mines, they not--
not cross fire zones to get back to us.
LAMB: What was the impact on you when you lost your mother and your
Ms. UNG: I remember s--going there. And--and when I found out the
news, I--I had what scientists call--what psychologists call fushick
amnesia. I lost three days of my life. I just blanked out. It
was--was losing--my mind just shut down and--and I--and--and I ceased
to be who I am today. It's just--my mind shut down, I blanked out.
It's almost as if I went to sleep and I woke up three days later and
I'm back at the camp. I don't remember what happened.
LAMB: What happened to your life after that?
Ms. UNG: I got a lot more angry. I got a lot more angry.
LAMB: How would we have known if we'd been around you then that you
Ms. UNG: I would've hurt you. I would've hurt you.
Ms. UNG: Yeah.
LAMB: In what way?
Ms. UNG: I like to say that I couldn't kill. I'd like to say I
couldn't kill, but I would've, but I could.
LAMB: Did you ever kill anybody?
Ms. UNG: No. I was very fortunate. I was young. They trained me.
They trained me so that I would grow up to be the perfect citizen in
mind and body. I was lucky. I was lucky. I was never put in the
front line. I was too young. But I would've. I could've.
LAMB: So what happened to you then? Where'd you go?
Ms. UNG: I stayed at the orphanage camp and--and was trained and
stayed there for--for a year and just worked and lived and got
LAMB: How'd all this end?
Ms. UNG: The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. And, of course--and--and
my orphanage camp got bombed--got bombed. It went into flames
and--and that was a sign for me to take off and escape and run, and I
LAMB: I'm not sure I pronounce it right, but there's a friend of
yours--is it Pithy?
Ms. UNG: Yes.
LAMB: Is that the way you pronounce it?
Ms. UNG: Yes, Pithy.
LAMB: What's the story about her?
Ms. UNG: She was my first friend in four years. For four years
living in the Khmer Rouge, you couldn't trust anybody. You couldn't
have friends. And she was my first friend. She was nine years old,
maybe 10. We were hiding out in a bomb shelter and she was just right
next to me. She was just crouching right next to me, and our shelter
got hit. And, of course, instinctually, with your hands, you reach
for your head or you reach for people. And I reached for her. And
instead of where her head should've--be, there was now a hole. She
got hit by--I don't know what the word is in En--shrapnel, I think,
a big piece of it. And--and there was her blood on me
and--and--and--and parts of her brains, and I got up and ran away.
LAMB: I know I've asked this question more than once, but, again,
what--you know, when you think back to that, how do you process this
stuff? I mean, you saw all this, including that--that--that execution
that you were very close to. I mean, you were then how far away from
Ms. UNG: Oh. Gosh, 40, 30 feet, if even, maybe less. I was very
close. I was very close, but I had--I had my grama, I had my scarf
wrapped--wrapped around my head so you could even--you could only see
my eye. The fear of living for four years fearing for your life, even
though he was in a chair, he was tied up, there were hundreds of us
surrounding him. In my mind, I was so afraid, I had to cover my face.
I was afraid that what if he escaped? What if somehow he got loose
in--from the chair and escaped? And if he sees my face, he's going to
come after me.
LAMB: And how many people were surrounding him?
Ms. UNG: Hundreds. Hundreds of people.
LAMB: And he, again, was a Khmer Rouge?
Ms. UNG: He was a Khmer Rouge member and...
LAMB: How old?
Ms. UNG: I'm assuming probably mid-20s. Yeah.
LAMB: Is this the only one of these executions you saw?
Ms. UNG: That I can remember.
LAMB: I mean, you write--again, I--I wrote--I read some of this
earlier--then later on, after he had first been...
Ms. UNG: Yeah.
LAMB: ...hit over the head and killed with a--a hammer...
Ms. UNG: Yes.
LAMB: ...there's another person there with a knife. Who was that?
Ms. UNG: Yeah. It's another wo--it was a public execution. The way
they opened it up was the leader of the group--of the Cambodian group
asked volunteers from the crowd to come and kill the man, and two
women volunteered. And after he was killed, another woman went up
and--and stabbed him and supposedly, allegedly, she knew him. He was
a Khmer Rouge member in her village and he was--he was the one that
killed her family.
LAMB: I--I want to read this again only to show how you wrote, and
ask you b--b--by the way, where--where did you write this book?
Ms. UNG: Here in DC, in--in--in my--in my house and in--in my office
sometimes, when I couldn't--when I couldn't put it away. It was--I
was obsessive. I was listening to Cambodian music all the time. I
was--I was either going to write and--and do this final battle, or I
was just going to die trying.
LAMB: `Blood splatters the woman's clothes, body, face. She screams
and swings the hammer up above her head again. Blood droplets land on
my pants and face. I wipe them off. Rud--red smudges are still on my
palms. Another scream comes from the old woman. This time her hammer
smashes his leg. His leg jerks, but is held down by a rope. The
hammer lands over and over again on his arms, shoulders and knees
before the younger woman moves toward him. Taking her knife, she
pushes it into the prisoner's stomach. More blood pours out, spilling
over his chair. She stabs him again, this time in the chest.'
Is it hard to write that kind of...
Ms. UNG: I wish I didn't have to.
LAMB: Why did you want to put that in the book?
Ms. UNG: The book--I think--I--I--in writing it--and I think I--I
was very restrained with the violence. That is just one sections
where it was just fact. It was just there. I--I--I made it--I made
it a focus to write a family story, to write about grace and dignity,
that people as human being can live, even in the most extreme
circumstances--whether you can--you live--you live life with that
certain dignity for 24 hours, 24 days or a month, that you can do it.
And that was--that was just fact. That was just there.
LAMB: I actually read it, because--and you're right. This is not
what this book is like.
Ms. UNG: No.
LAMB: I read it because it was so unusual. As I read the book...
Ms. UNG: Yeah.
LAMB: ...I wondered why you'd gone there on that.
Ms. UNG: Yeah. It was there. It was there. I went there, because
it was there. It was in front of me. Blood splattered on me and it's
in my mind.
LAMB: How did you get out of Vietna--Vietnam--out of Cambodia?
Ms. UNG: In--in the '80s, there were that wave of boat people coming
to Thailand, and so we--we--my oldest brother and I got ourselves on
boat and went from the--Cambodia to Vietnam, Vietnam to the refugee
camp in Thailand.
LAMB: And then what? How's the process work? How did you end up in
Essex Junction, Vermont?
Ms. UNG: Gosh! We were at the camp for a few months. And--and, I
guess, the process that--that--you come, they take your picture, it's
like the one on the cover of the book, and then they put the pictures
in refugees resettlement programs all over the world and then people
sponsored you over. And we were there for about five months and--and
we didn't have a choice. We didn't have a choice. We didn't know
anything about America. We didn't speak any English. We didn't have
any contacts in America, didn't know anybody from America, and--and
we didn't have a choice. It's just a matter of putting on--marking
on--on--on the refuge paper that you want to leave. We didn't even
know if we were going to end up in America, in France, in Australia.
And we were sponsored by a chur--the Holy Family Church group in--in
And I remember as--remember the missionaries would come in and show
the movies--and I think I already said it--the movies were all--were
all about San Francisco, LA and New York. And I asked my brother,
`Is--is our new home going to be like that?' And we all s--we all
were--were sure that it was going to be like those places. We were in
a complete shock--shock when we landed in Essex Junction, Vermont.
LAMB: When you landed there, who met you?
Ms. UNG: Our sponsors. Our sponsors. The Costelos, the Lucenties,
other members of the church group. I--and I was--I--God, I remember
my brother had bought me a white shirt--a crisp, white shirt that we
folded and--and I put it on so quickly that the buttons were buttoned
wrong. When I got off the plane, there were just flashes of cameras
and it was a little scary--it was a little scary.
LAMB: What language did you speak?
Ms. UNG: Khmera. My brother spoke--and--and--and he--at that time,
he already--he knew English a little bit, but I didn't know a single
word. I might know my ABC's and `thank you,' but I didn't know a
single word. Yeah.
LAMB: Where did you go to live?
Ms. UNG: We lived in Essex Junction, Vermont, and we lived in a
little apartment on the--above the dentist's office.
LAMB: With who?
Ms. UNG: My brother and sister-in-law. He was just 22 or so at the
LAMB: Just the three of you lived there?
Ms. UNG: Just the three of us. Yeah.
LAMB: And when did you learn English?
Ms. UNG: All that summer. We arrived on June tw--on June 20th,
1980. It's freezing! I remember it just being so cold and it was
June. Of course, June in Vermont is cold still. And we--I learned
English all that summer. I--I--of course, I learned spoken English.
We watched TV. We watched TV every day. I watched "The Jetsons." I
watched "Gilligan's Island." I watched a lot of soap operas, and
that's how we learned.
But when I went to school and--and a teacher--and one of the first
assignments in--in--in school was that we had to write in our
journal--those little square manila folder journal--what we did
the summer. I didn't know the--the language. And there was a girl
named Barbara, I still remember, sitting next to me. She wrote
something and I copied what she wrote. When we handed it in to the
teacher, the teacher called me over and said, `So you wrote that your
grandmother came to visit.' And I said, `Sure.' I've been in a war.
I'm taught not to ever disagree with adults. And she said, `So you
wrote you got a dog and you went swimming and you went to Disney
World.' And I said, `OK, if you say so.' And--and it was then that
they found out that I didn't know how to write. They took me out of
the third grade--they put me in the third grade--put me in the second
grade and they had teachers coming in and taking me out of class. And
then they just kept moving me up grades until I caught up. And I was
still--I still graduated a year behind, but I caught up pretty
LAMB: Now we talked about--a little bit about St. Michael's College,
which, by the way, is located where?
Ms. UNG: Winooski, Vermont.
LAMB: But I want to jump, before we run out of time, to the Campaign
for a Landmine-Free World, where you work now full-time?
Ms. UNG: Yes. Yes. Yes.
LAMB: How long have you done that?
Ms. UNG: For about three years. I'm the spokesperson for the
Campaign for a Landmine-Free World. And I got involved because, for
one, Senator Leahy--Senator Patrick Leahy is our great senator from
Vermont--when I landed in Vermont, it was such a blessing to know
that--I read the papers--to know that we had a senator that knew and
were concerned with human rights and was working a lot with land
mines. And he created the Leahy War Victims Fund that assisted
victims who were hurt by land mines in all parts of the world. And so
I knew about land mines.
When I went back in 1996--'95, the first time, I just came
face-to-face with this--the devastations that land mines are still
causing all over my country.
LAMB: Where's this picture from?
Ms. UNG: That's a picture of me at the Anka Watts. Just me sitting,
contemplating. And then this was done by a friend of mine, who just
happened to walk by and ca--and--and caught the moment.
LAMB: What year?
Ms. UNG: This was actually last year. And--and--and I love the
picture, because the little girl just reminded me so much of me.
In--in all parts of Cambodia, you couldn't go to a hospital, you
couldn't go to a museum, you couldn't go to a movie theater, you
couldn't go to a shop, you couldn't go to a bar without running into
an amputee. There's supposed to be four to six million land mines
still in Cambodia, and that is the war of the second generation. In
Cambodia, it is no longer the soldiers that are killing parents,
killing children, making children orphans. It's now land mines. That
is the new soldier.
LAMB: Have you ever thought about moving back permanently to
Ms. UNG: I thought about it. Definitely going to be going a lot. I
don't--America's my home. I love America, but Cambodia's my heart.
It's my heart. It's my conscience. Cambodia decide--helps me decide
what's right and what's wrong and what actions to take. I don't think
I can live in Cambodia. It's--I--I'm too outspoken politically
and--and personally and otherwise. And there's still this paranoia in
my mind that--my family live in a small village. I don't ever involve
them with my work. When I'm in Cambodia working, I don't see them, I
don't call them, I don't talk to them. When I'm finished, I disappear
and I go visit them. I'm afraid that when I'm there and I say the
wrong things, or I'm--or I'm out in the public, that I might put them
in danger. Whether that's real or imagined, I fear it.
LAMB: Do you ever get tired of telling this story?
Ms. UNG: Only to people who--only to people who just doesn't really
care and they're just asking to be--I think sometimes
people--actually, no. I mean, I--I've told the stories and it--it's
actually quite--for lack of a better term, they're therapeutic for
Each time I tell it, I feel less trapped by it. Each time I tell it,
it's almost as if I release it into the air a lot more and get it out
of my mind so that it doesn't control my mind. It's not a cloud
hovering my mind and--and that I wear, like, a metal hat. Each time I
tell it, I release it. I release it t--out there. I release it out
to the world for people to share and for people to get and for people
LAMB: Do you happen to know how many Cambodians there are in the
Ms. UNG: I think about 250,000--250--200 and--a little over
LAMB: Do you know where the largest groups are located?
Ms. UNG: In Seattle; in Lowell, Massachusetts; Rhode Island;
Minnesota; and California, LA.
LAMB: This is the cover of the book and the title is "First They
Killed My Father." Loung Ung, our guest. Thank you very much.
Ms. UNG: Thank you.