Loung Ung was the next to youngest of eight children born into a middle-class family living in Phnom Penh, and the daughter of a former member of the Cambodian Royal Secret Service under Prince Sihanouk. Conscripted as a major into the new government of General Lon Nol, her father was the incarnation of all that the Khmer Rouge wanted to obliterate when they stormed Cambodia’s capital city on April 17, 1975, beginning their reign of terror. Fleeing with her family into the countryside, along with thousands of others who were evacuating Phnom Penh, Loung learned thefirst of many hard lessons.
In order to survive, she had to hide her identity, her education, her former life of privilege. It was no longer safe to trust anyone. “To talk is to bring danger to the family. At five years old, I am beginning to know what loneliness feels like, silent and alone and suspecting that everyone wants to hurt me.” Posing as peasants, Loung’s family moved from village to village, hoping that no one would recognize and expose them as enemies of the Khmer Rouge government.
Working 12-14 hour days and barely surviving on their meager rations, they supplemented their diet with roots and leaves or small animals that they trapped. When those became scarce, they caught beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, and frogs for food. “In Phnom Penh, I would have thrown up if someone told me I would have to eat those things. Now, when the only alternative is to starve, I fight others for a dead animal lying in the road.
Surviving for another day has become the most important thing to me.” Although Loung’s three oldest siblings – her brothers, Khouy and Meng, and her sister, Keav-were forced to go to different labor camps, the rest of the family struggled to stay together. After the soldiers came for Loung’s father, they separated to survive. Finding her way to a work camp for orphans, Loung began training as a child soldier and was subjected to brainwashing. F…