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A Survivor of the Killing Fields Shares Her Story.

Loung Ung is the author of the memoir, “First They Killed My Father: a daughter of Cambodia remembers” (HarperCollins). UNG’s father had been a high-ranking government official, but in 1975 when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Pen, her family fled, hiding in villages as peasants. But eventually her father was taken away and killed, and the family disperses to survive. Ung was seven years old and sent to a work camp, trained as a child soldier. Now UNG is National Spokesperson for the “Campaign for a Landmine Free World.”


Other segments from the episode on January 27, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 27, 2000: Interview with Loung Ung; Review of Renee Fleming's album "Strauss Heroines."


Date: JANUARY 2&, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 012701np.217
Head: Loung Ung Discusses Her Memoirs and Her Work Against Land Mines
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: (audio interrupt) 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh and her family was forced to evacuate to the countryside. Her parents were killed, two of her six siblings died, and she was sent to a Khmer Rouge training camp for child soldiers.

Now she's a spokesperson for the Campaign Against Land Mines. She's written a new memoir called "First They Killed My Father."

Also, classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews the CD "Strauss Heroines" featuring soprano Renee Fleming.

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First, the news.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is one of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge's killing fields in Cambodia. Loung Ung was 5 years old in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, where her family lived. The Khmer Rouge wanted to build an agrarian society. City people were despised. Loung Ung's family was forced to evacuate to the countryside, where they had to hide their middle-class background.

Her mother and father were killed by the Khmer Rouge. Two of her six siblings died. She ended up in a work camp for orphans and was then sent to a training camp for child soldiers.

In 1980, she and her oldest brother fled to Vietnam and later were resettled in Vermont.

Now Loung Ung is a spokesperson for the Campaign for a Land Mine-Free World, a program of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. She's written a memoir called "First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers."

I asked her how her family knew it was time to evacuate their home in Phnom Penh.

LOUNG UNG, AUTHOR, "FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER": We knew right away. We -- I remember being 5 years old and playing hopscotch in the street with friends. And all of a sudden there was some thunderous noise from afar, and it just came sort of rolling into the city like clouds. And the next thing I know, all these black trucks came into the city, and in all the trucks were soldiers, dressed in black gentlemen's clothes, in shirts and pants, and on their backs there were guns across their backs and grenades on their belts.

They were all smiling. They were stolling (ph) into our cities. And of course, being a 5-year-old, I thought it was a big party. I saw everybody stop their work, and they came out and they cheered and clapped and waved. And so I did the same. I was smiling and happy. And people were screaming, "The war is over! The war is over!"

And I didn't really understand. And then I remember minutes later going up to my father's house and then hearing that the Khmer Rouge soldiers had -- came into the town, gotten off their trucks, and pulled out their bullhorns and started to scream into it and tell people that they had to leave their home, that we had to evacuate.

And their reasons they gave us was that we had to evacuate because the U.S. was going to come in and bomb the city. We were to pack as little as we can to sustain us for three days. And after the U.S. bombed the cities, and they have had a chance to clean up the city, we can all come back home.

That was what I held onto, and that's when we found out that we had to evacuate.

GROSS: So the Khmer Rouge was really trying to empty out the capital of Phnom Penh, the major city of Cambodia, and create an agrarian society. And you and your family were among the many people who had to flee to the countryside and learn a new kind of life.

Now, you were in a kind of interesting position. You had to pose as peasants, and you also couldn't let on your father's real identity. What was it that your father needed to cover up?

UNG: My father, before the Khmer Rouge came in, worked as a royal secret service, and also he was in the military police. And we knew from day one -- he knew that that was going to put him in danger. When the Khmer Rouge came into the city -- I didn't know it at the time, but shortly after they evacuated people at gunpoint out of the city, they went around and gathered the elites, and they gathered the civil servants and the (inaudible) -- the former soldiers of the opposition party, and they executed them.

And so my father knew from day one that we were going to be in danger.

GROSS: What were you and the other children told about what not to say in order to protect his identity?

UNG: At first we were told that we were not to ever talk about the city, and we were not ever to talk about our lives in the city. And that, for me, was very, very fearful. I was very afraid of that. You never knew -- we were told not to say anything that would reveal to others in the Khmer Rouge and the society that we came from the city. And at first, it started with not saying anything about my father's positions in his job, and then it was not to say something about Phnom Penh, the city and the capital.

And then it went down to the movie theaters we went to. And then we were to never -- not to talk about paid rent (ph), because that would give them an idea that we were from the city. And then there were ice creams, and then the food shops and the restaurants, because these things we didn't have in the rural countryside.

It got to a point where I was so afraid to open my mouth, I was so afraid that anything I said would cause my -- it would put my family in danger and would cost them their lives. And that it got to a point where I just couldn't say anything.

GROSS: Now, it wasn't just your father who was in jeopardy. Your mother was too, because she wasn't from Cambodia, she was from China. And her skin color was lighter than Cambodians'. Why was that a problem?

UNG: The Khmer Rouge wanted not only to create a proper agrarian society, they wanted to create a perfect ethnic society. Their paranoia was such that anybody who was involved with any kind of foreign powers and who had any connections with another foreign countries were in view suspect of betrayals and were viewed to be traitors.

And I think there was probably some deep-down politics with the Chinese and their dependence on the Chinese for political reasons also. More than her skin color, my mother also happened to be five-feet-seven, and she was an Amazon in the Cambodian culture, and very, very beautiful, very cultured, and a socialite. And she grew most of her life -- she grew up most of her life in Cambodia and Phnom Penh, a city woman, and she knew nothing about farming.

And in that society, in the Khmer Rouge society, if you could not contribute to the growth of society by working in the field, you were view as very much dispensable.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Loung Ung, and she's the author of a new memoir called "First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers." And she was 5 when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh and her family was forced to evacuate.

With your family, you went to several rural villages, and then you wound up in a village called -- correct me if I'm pronouncing this wrong -- Ro Leep (ph).

UNG: Yes.

GROSS: Which was controlled by the Khmer Rouge. And you were exposed to the rules of the Khmer Rouge. What were some of the rules that you now had to follow in your day-to-day life?

UNG: They -- the rules to live in the village and not get hurt was that we had to abandon all of our former lives. Religion was banned. Music was banned. Any kind of gatherings and sharing of information and meetings was banned, as well as that we had to wear black shirts and black pants every day for the rest of our lives under the regime.

Basically, all of the social, civilized world that I grew up with in Phnom Penh, it was all banned.

GROSS: You say that you were treated like slaves. What were you forced to do?

UNG: Every day in the Khmer Rouge society was a Monday, and every Monday was a work day. Every work day, we were forced to work in the field anywhere between 12 to 16 hours. There were no holidays, there were no weekends, there were no day off. We just didn't have that. And every day we worked, and after working we would come home, and then in the evening there would be the propaganda meetings where we would have to go and listen to the village chief talk and propagandize and preach about the mighty Khmer Empire, the mighty Enka (ph) Empire.

And then we would go to sleep, and the next morning it's the same thing over again. And yet we weren't paid, we weren't rewarded, we just worked.

GROSS: Was there food?

UNG: There were food at times, there were not food a lot of times. It's a weird society (inaudible). It did a lot to your body. There were months on end, for three months we would have plentiful food of rice and vegetables, maybe a little bit of meat, and we would survive and gain strength. And then for three months or so there would be no food, and we would be hungry, and people would die from starvation, and we would steal and try to survive. And then for a month or so there would be food, and then there wouldn't be food. And it just went on like that for about four years.

GROSS: What did you eat when there was no food?

UNG: Gosh, I ate everything. It's -- it's still difficult to talk about it. I remember my 6th birthday -- my father was very, very educated, and told us a lot about cultures and different peoples in all of the world. And he told us about people in other countries that celebrated their birthday with birthday cakes and cookies and presents and family around. And after having tried in so many thing else (ph) and there weren't a lot of -- there weren't food around, I remember picking up a piece of charcoal and chewing into it...

GROSS: Charcoal.

UNG: ... hoping that it would -- Charcoal. The forest (ph), the Khmer Rouge would occasionally raze the forest to make new farmland, and as a child I would just walk in these raze after the forest been burned down looking for animals that were trapped in the fire and eat it. And one time I even had the luck of finding an armadillo -- I think that's what it's called -- and got some meat out of it. But on that particular day there was nothing. And I ate a charcoal. I ate pieces of charcoal.

GROSS: Did you eat insects?

UNG: Oh, yes. (laughs) You were lucky, you were lucky if you can get some crickets and frogs, June bugs. They -- you're lucky if you can find insects and animals. And it seems that when you are starving, you are clumsy predators. It's hard to go and search for food when you could barely get your body to move, to take up inanimate objects versus going after live objects.

GROSS: I know a lot of American kids think of insects as really icky and couldn't imagine eating an insect. Did you go through a period like that where you had to reconcile the fact that you would die unless you ate crickets, or ate grasshoppers?

UNG: Yes. (laughs) It's true, it's -- I grew up a very privileged kid. I grew up with a lot of money. I grew up eating junk food. And even though my junk food of -- my favorite junk food at the time was roasted crickets -- and that's a form of delicacy -- however, June bugs and frogs and rats and all that, that's not a form of delicacy in any country, I don't think.

I was disgusted at first. It's -- you had to force it down. But then you realized that there was nothing else. And if you didn't eat it, you wouldn't live to see the next day. So you had to do it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Loung Ung, and she's the author of a new memoir called "First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Loung Ung, and she's the author of a new memoir called "First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers." She was 5 when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh and began that revolution. She moved to America in 1980.

Your father was taken away by Khmer soldiers not too long after you were forced to flee your home. Tell us what you remember of that day.

UNG: That's a difficult day to even draw back (ph). I remember that we knew we couldn't hide forever. And that was a constant fear in my mind. And my father was everything to me. He was my god, he was my friend, he was my father. When the soldier came and took him away, it was a -- really a beautiful night, with a radiant sunset. And I remember they came to the village and they asked for my father, and they said to us that they needed him to go and help them remove an ox cart out of the mud.

And I asked them, "When is he going to come back?" And they said that not to worry, they will bring my father back tomorrow. My father then went into the hut that we were living in, talked to my mother for a few minutes, and he came back out. And my mother stayed in the hut by herself and cried. And I remember just thinking, God, I've seen him go off to work every day, and she's never reacted this way. I must have known. I must have known something was wrong. But I couldn't accept it. I was in -- I was denying that.

And it shocked me when my father came over to myself and picked me up in his arm and held me. And then he went to my brothers and sister, and he held them. And as the soldier lead him away, we watched him walk away, and he was walking tall for that first time in a year and a half, since we'd been living under the Khmer Rouge regime. And his shoulders was high, and his chest was up when he walked with them. And they had -- they had guns on their back, and they weren't aimed at him or anything, he just walked away with them.

My brothers and I watched my father, hoping that he would turn back. He never -- but he never did. My father, needless to say, didn't return the next morning, and we prayed and we asked the gods to bring him back, but he didn't come back the next day either, or the day after that. And we found out later on that he was executed. And...

GROSS: What did you find out about his execution?

UNG: We were told that they knew who my father was, and we were told that he was taken, and that he was killed. We weren't given details of it. And I was a 7-year-old child. My mind just couldn't accept it. I knew, I knew, and we all knew the way the Khmer Rouge killed their victims and prisoners, and that was with a blunt object to the side of the head and pushing the body into the mass grave somewhere.

And we were at the time living in the Porsat (ph) region, which is sort of the killing fields of Cambodia, where this was happening more than in other regions of Cambodia.

I was a child, and even to this day I pray and I imagine and I dream that the soldiers must have somehow had mercy on my father and shot him. I don't know if people can understand that, to dream, to pray...

GROSS: (inaudible) shooting would be a comparatively good thing.

UNG: Yes. That's -- you pray that your loved one not only die, but die quickly.

GROSS: Did you look to your mother for an example of how one was supposed to behave in the face of this.

UNG: (laughs) My mother is a very, very complex creature, and it was -- I didn't understand it at the time. I always thought that she was weak, I did. My father took care of us, and he took care of her. And I thought she was weak, because also during the Khmer Rouge regime, we were told again and again that we (inaudible) for the most part, if you couldn't work in the field, you were dispensable.

When my father was killed, my mother became a different person. She became much stronger. But I still didn't recognize it until many, many years later. A few months after my father was taken away, my mother gathered all my siblings together and told us to leave her. She told us to leave home, and she said that she didn't want us around, she couldn't take care of us.

And we had to go and walk north and east and south and west and find an orphanage camp. And once we're there, we're supposed to take a new name, not tell each other what names we'd taken, so that if we were caught we wouldn't be able to disclose the information, and not come back to her.

I was barely 8 years old, and I didn't want to go, and I was so upset for her for making me go. But she turned me around, slapped me on my butt, and told me to get out the door. And I was very angry at her.

Many, many years later, what I thought was her act of weakness I now realize that it must have taken a mother incredible strength to be able to do that, to send your children into the war zone and not know whether or not they've died. And that strength in the later years, especially now, that's her strength I hold onto.

GROSS: What do you think her motivation was for forcing you to leave?

UNG: She knew -- my father and her must have had conversations, and she knew that the Khmer Rouge at that time were not only executing fathers and adult male in the communities, but they were going after whole families. They were, I think, paranoid that if they left the kids alive, then we would grow up and maybe take avenge, and take revenge on them. And we knew that they were going after the whole families.

So I think her motivation for sending us away was that if all of us couldn't survive, by separating us, by hiding us in different places, some of us would survive.

GROSS: How many of you survived? There were seven children in your family.

UNG: Five survived, three older brothers and another sister.

GROSS: What happened to your mother?

UNG: When I went off to the camp, about a year later I remember that I woke up one day and -- just incredibly in pain. My stomach was just hurting me and my body was tense and my mind was just racing. And I knew something was wrong, and I knew something was wrong, and I knew it had to do -- something to do with my mother. I remember walking over to her village and looking for her and then finding out that she had also been taken away by the soldiers, along with my 4-year-old sister at the time.

A year and a half after I left her, I didn't have to pretend to be an orphan any more.

GROSS: And you don't know how she was killed.

UNG: I don't know exactly how she was killed. I don't know the details. That's the worst part of it. What you don't know for sure, your mind makes up, and it makes up terrible images.

GROSS: Is there a part in your mind where you still think, well, maybe she's alive but just missing?

UNG: No. Absolutely not. After the Khmer Rouge, when the Vietnamese came in, my brothers -- I still have a brother and a sister in Cambodia, and other relatives, (inaudible), cousins, they've all moved to the village where my mother grew up in Cambodia. They've been there for over 20 years. If my parents were alive, there was no -- there was nothing on earth that would have prevented them from coming back to us. And we are all still there waiting in the same village.

GROSS: Loung Ung, her new memoir is called "First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers." She'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Loung Ung. She's written a new memoir about growing up in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. It's called "First They Killed My Father." She was 5 when the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh and her family was forced to evacuate to the countryside. Her father, who had been in the prince's royal secret service and later served in the military police, was regarded by the Khmer Rouge as an enemy.

After fleeing to the countryside, he was killed by the Khmer Rouge. Soon after, Loung Ung's mother forced the children to go off on their own.

When your mother forced you and your siblings to leave her, so that your identities wouldn't be known and you wouldn't be killed because of who your father was, you ended up at an orphan camp. And then, because you were comparatively strong, you were sent to a child soldiers' camp. This is a camp where they trained kids to be soldiers.

What was the training like? What -- who were you -- were you expected to fight as kids, or was this training that was supposed to prepare you for when you were older?

UNG: I really don't know. I don't know about that. I was very feisty, I was very strong. Mostly I was very angry, and I hated everybody, I hated the world. And the training picked up on that. They picked up on that. And they were -- the training basically broke down into two parts. I mean, we were required to also work in the field, but whatever hours we had available, we were to sit for hours, listening to the propagandas of who out there, which group of people are out to get us, are out to kill us.

And that included the Vietnamese troops, that included the American troops, that included foreign powers, and also our own relatives and parents or cousins or aunts or neighbors who are suspected to be traitors against the Cambodian -- the Khmer Rouge government.

So we were brainwashed for hours on end, and we were told that all these people were out to kill us. And because we, the Khmer Rouge, we the children of the Khmer Rouge, were the pure being of the society, we were so valued, we were the saviors of the society, we were (inaudible), that we would be the first group people would want to kill.

Besides from the brainwashing every day, we were trained with weapons, of course. And that was the easiest part for me, I think. It's easy to put a gun in a child's hand. It's easy to put a hoe or an axe. And there in the Khmer society, guns and ammunitions were very costly and expensive. And so for the most part, you would train that anything around you could be used as a weapon.

There were people in my camp that I was trained with who were sent to the front line, and they were 14, 15 years old, maybe even younger. And you never heard from them again.

GROSS: How long were you at the child soldiers' camp?

UNG: Time is very abstract in Cambodia. I think about a year. But in the Khmer Rouge society also, calendars and watches and clocks, all those (inaudible) -- all those instruments of time were banned. So we really didn't know from specific day one to day two, but I think I was in the camp for about a year.

GROSS: Now, so you were in this children's soldiers' camp, then you ended up with, I think, a foster family. And then you ended up being one of the boat people going from Cambodia to Vietnam.

How did you -- was it your decision to go to Vietnam, or was that somebody older than you who decided on your behalf?

UNG: Yes. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979, Cambodia was -- Cambodian economy in the country itself was in a complete shamble. There were no jobs, there were no economy, and people were still dying from starvations and disease by the thousands.

My oldest brother, luckily for me, miraculous for me, I was reunited with three surviving brothers and another sister. And we also knew that because of the society and being at the internally displaced people's camp, that we were in danger. Our murderers and our killers, as you know, were people like us, people who spoke our language and ate our -- ate the same food and worshipped the same religion.

And we were afraid that those people infiltrated the camps and would know who we are, and we couldn't go into hiding any more. And we had to leave Cambodia. The (inaudible) and my brother decided that there were only two ways at that point to leave Cambodia, and that was either by boat or by sea or by land.

By land, we would have to walk the land of Cambodia and cross the borders of Cambodia into Thailand. We also knew that these patches of land, mile or two (ph) of the borderlands, were litter (ph) -- were where Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, call his silent sentinels of death, his eternal soldiers that needed no sleep (inaudible). And these were antipersonnel land mines.

And we were just -- we couldn't risk all of us walking this land, having just lost half of our families. And so we had to go by boat. And my oldest brother decided that was going to be him and I to make the journey.

GROSS: How did your older brother choose that it was going to be he and you who got to take a boat to Vietnam?

UNG: The boat trip to -- first of all, to buy a seat on the boat, it cost 10 ounces, five to 10 ounces of pure gold per person. And we just didn't have enough to take all of us out of Cambodia. And so that's one of the reasons why had to split up, and why my oldest brother and I left. And he was 20 at the time. My other siblings went into hiding.

It was going to be -- it had to be him, because he was the oldest, and being the oldest, he was now head of the family. And it had to be him because he needed to go out and find jobs and try and earn some money to send back home. It came down to me, and back then I thought it was because they always said that I had -- that I showed promises of intelligence, and they wanted me and the youngest, they would have the most opportunity to take advantage of the educational system anywhere -- wherever we end up.

That's what they wanted, that's why they chose me. Later on I found out through my sister in Cambodia, the other reason they chose me, was because they thought I was too precocious and too loud and too mouthy, and I -- if I was to stay in Cambodia I might end up in some undesirable marriage and be domestically -- and be hurt by my husband wherever I end up. And so they wanted to take me out of that culture, where I could be a troublesome -- a troublemaker and still survive.

GROSS: What was the boat trip like?

UNG: The trip itself from Vietnam to Thailand, we were put on a black market boat, a boat that was disguised as a fishing boat. And our boat, I think, was approximately 40 feet, 45 feet long. And underneath the deck there were 98 people crowded together, sitting, crouching together. It felt like a rocking wooden coffin in the sea, just didn't know whether or not we would make it.

GROSS: Well, you did make it, and you ended up, what, in a refugee camp for a while?

UNG: I ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand for about five months before we were sponsored by a church group in Vermont and came to America as refugees.

GROSS: Now, how did you end up being sponsored? I mean, did they go around, like, shopping for the right kids to take back to the United States? I mean, how were kids chosen?

UNG: Well, my brother at the time was -- he was 20 and he was married already, and so we were a family, and we didn't want to be split up. And I guess the way the refugee resettlement program works is that when you get off the boat, they take your pictures and they put you in sort of a sponsorship book. And then people all over the world have access through -- via the refugee resettlement programs to try and sponsor people over.

And it was -- it was by pure random, really, random choice.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Loung Ung, and she's the author of a new memoir, "First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers." Let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Loung Ung. She's written a new memoir about growing up under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. She was 5 when the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975. She came to the U.S. in 1980.

So you ended up in Vermont.

UNG: (inaudible)...

GROSS: Cold, snowy, a completely different climate from what you were used to.

UNG: We arrived in Vermont on June 20, 1980, and we were freezing. It was cold, and it was 80, 80 degrees.

GROSS: (laughs)

UNG: But we were so cold. We were just bundling up in sweaters all the time. We're not used -- in Cambodia, we're used to 100, 110 in high humidity, and so we were very cold. And besides from that, there were -- they -- we didn't know anything about America. And there were missionaries, and then people who would come into the refugee camps in Thailand who would try to introduce you and teach you a little bit about your new home and what it's going to be like.

And one of the ways they would do this, they would come to the camp and they would show films of America. All the films, as you know about, actually makes its way to Asia, takes place in San Francisco, L.A., or New York. (laughs) And so I remember asking my brother if Vermont, asked if (inaudible) in Vermont was going to be like these places, and he said -- he assured me that it would be. If it's part of America, it's going to look like L.A., San Francisco, and New York.

And it didn't. There were a lot of Holstein cows. They were -- I as personally very afraid of Holstein cows. We just didn't have such animals in my country.

GROSS: So did you live with your brother and his wife?

UNG: I did, I did.

GROSS: And what was your attitude toward trying to assimilate into American culture? I mean, obviously you learned the language pretty good.

UNG: Well, thank you.

GROSS: What about, you know, American culture? Did you resist it or embrace it when you arrived here?

UNG: I embraced it completely. I wanted so much, so much to be a normal American kid. I wanted so much to leave Cambodia behind. I wanted to be normal. I actually went through trying to get my hair cut, and I remember as a child always dreaming about having enough money to have eye surgeries done, or to get that Farah Fawcett hair cut. And ate a lot of pizza and try to speak the English language. And I wanted to be an American.

GROSS: So you wanted to be a normal American kid. I mean, the odds of you being, quote, "normal" -- norm -- you know, all -- normal any nationality after what you'd experienced, after all the horrors you'd experienced, were pretty slim. Did you look at other kids and think, I can never be like that?

UNG: (laughs) There were times when that did occur to me. But I'm a very optimistic kind of person, and I'm very hopeful. There were times when I thought, Wow, maybe I'm not normal, maybe the rest of the world is just as dysfunctional as I am. But I just didn't think that was possible. I thought, you know, even when I had -- there was one instances when I went to school in my junior high -- at my junior high here, and I just -- I will always be bothered and be haunted by these nightmares and dreams of the war.

And I went to school one day, telling a group of my friends about the dream that I had the night before, where someone or something would always -- was trying to kill me. And in that dream, it was a man coming after me in dark clothes, and he was trying to kill me. I grabbed the only thing next to me that I could get, and that was a butter knife. And I was trying to slice the guy's neck with a clean slice, and I couldn't. And so I ended up gnawing his neck, because of the serrated edges of the butter knife.

And I thought that was hilarious, for some reason I just thought that the act of trying to gnaw someone's neck off was just funny. And I looked around after I finished my story at my friends, and they all looked at me, and they all -- their jaws dropped. And needless to say, I don't think any boys in junior high school asked me out.

GROSS: (laughs)

UNG: You know, I was -- but there were hints, but I was very often sick (ph).

GROSS: Were you able to actually talk about your childhood with any of the American children that you became friends with in Vermont?

UNG: No, no. After a few of those incidents, I realized that telling people my dreams and my feelings would only ostracize and make me more of an outcast. And this, as you know, in combined with the fact that after four years of being in the Khmer -- of living under the Khmer Rouge regime, of wearing black shirt and black clothes, I would come to America and throw on all the colors in one outfit.

And that didn't help. And no, we never -- I never talked to my friends about it. And I have friends who I've known since the sixth grade or the fifth grade who still doesn't know anything about my past.

GROSS: You were 10 or about 10 when you came to the United States. Your brother was already in his early 20s. Was it as comparatively easy for him to learn English and to learn American culture as it was for you?

UNG: No. I don't think they ever picked up in assimilating just as much as I did. It's still very difficult for them. And their friends tend to be more Cambodians or Chinese, whereas I feel completely comfortable in an international community.

GROSS: You're now a spokesperson for the Campaign for a Land Mine-Free World, which is part of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. How did you become their spokesperson?

UNG: I was recruited by Bobby Mohlert (ph), the president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. They started and co-founded the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines in 1991, and they were looking for someone to go out and speak on the land mine issues, and someone of -- from another country, not American background.

And the first time land mines came into my life, I remember, was during the Khmer Rouge regime. Often there -- when people were caught breaking the rules, whether they were religion or wore a colorful piece of clothing, sometimes they were sent out to work in areas where it is known to be mines. And if they came back and they survived, we were all very happy for them. But a lot of times they didn't come back.

In the Khmer Rouge society, if you step on a mine and you became a disabled person, there were no room in that society for disabled people, and so they would just be eliminated. (inaudible)...

GROSS: You mean killed, or just allowed to die?

UNG: Killed. And, of course, the second time mines came into my life, and high personal (ph) mines came to my life, was after the Khmer Rouge was defeated by the Vietnamese. My brothers, my siblings and I had to be separated, because -- had to leave each other, because we couldn't risk walking on the lane to Thai -- walk in Cambodia -- from Cambodia to Thailand, because we were afraid that we were going to be hurt by land mines.

And Cambodia is littered today with between 6 to 8 million land mines for a population of about 11 to 12 million people. It's estimated that in my homeland, half of the land, 50 percent of my land, is littered with mines. And for a country where 85 percent of the people are agricultural farmers, where do you go for farming? Where do you go to try and make a living?

And as a result, the economy to this day is still very much in a shamble.

GROSS: You still have a couple of siblings in Cambodia, right?

UNG: Yes, I have a brother and a sister in Cambodia.

GROSS: Do you often compare your life with their lives?

UNG: It's difficult to do, it's difficult to do, but I do. I don't know -- it's difficult. It's not in comparison as much as feeling guilt about it. For so long I've left Cambodia behind, I didn't want anything to do with it. And I came -- I'm so blessed. I count myself one of the luckiest persons I know. I was able to get out of that situation. I was able to come to America and receive a fairly decent education and have friends and be safe and heal my mind and have a sanctuary.

And for my siblings, for my siblings, for many people in Cambodia, they never had that choice. It's not a choice afforded to them. Even when they're in danger they cannot leave, and they have to live in that land. And as a result, and I think it's very difficult for them to get beyond the war and to try and live in a culture that is hopeful and peaceful, when the war is still all around them.

GROSS: Are they still poor as a result of the war?

UNG: Yes, they're still very poor. My brother is police chief in a village, and the police chief in our villages in Cambodia make -- they make anywhere between $20 to $30 a month.

GROSS: Now, your older brother, who was in his early 20s when you came to the United States in 1980, what does he do to earn a living now?

UNG: He works at IBM. He works with computers at IBM right now, and he's doing really well. He's married with two children, and he's since then been back to Cambodia quite a few times, and reunited with my siblings over there as well.

GROSS: Boy, I bet they don't have much of a knowledge of what computers are.

UNG: (laughs) It's funny, it's -- I brought my laptop to Cambodia, and I was showing it to them and showing them the graphics. And they thought -- it was unimaginable for them that you could print this stuff up and that you could connect to people from all the world. They still live in a very small village in -- outside of the Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, and all this stuff is still completely new to them.

GROSS: Well, Loung Ung, I wish you the best, and I thank you very much for talking with us.

UNG: Thank you.

GROSS: Loung Ung's new memoir is called "First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers." She now lives in Vermont.

Coming up, "Strauss Heroines," a new CD by soprano Renee Fleming.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Loung Ung
High: Loung Ung is the author of the memoir "First They Killed My Father: a daughter of Cambodia remembers" Ung's father had been a high-ranking government official, but in 1975, when Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Pen, her family fled, hiding in villages as peasants. But eventually her father was taken away and killed, and the family dispersed to survive. Ung was 7 years old and sent to a work camp, trained as a child soldier. Now Ung is national spokesperson for the "Campaign for a Landmine Free World."
Spec: World Affairs; Weapons; Cambodia; Violence; Death; War

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Loung Ung Discusses Her Memoirs and Her Work Against Land Mines

Date: JANUARY 2&, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 012701np.217
Head: Renee Fleming Shines in Her Latest Recording
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:48

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This Saturday afternoon, the scheduled live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in New York is Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," starring soprano Renee Fleming. Her latest recording includes excerpts from this and two other Strauss operas. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says it's rare in opera to find a performer so perfectly matched to her roles.


LLOYD SCHWARTZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC CRITIC: Richard Strauss wrote beautifully for women's voices, but it's been a while since there's been a singer around who could really do him justice. We have one now, Renee Fleming, who's made one of her great successes in the role of the Marschallin in Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier," first in Houston, then in Paris, and now at the Met in New York.

The Marschallin, the wife of the Field Marshall, is an 18th century Viennese aristocrat who's having an affair with a younger man, Octavian, a part Strauss wrote for another woman's voice, a mezzo-soprano. But the Marschallin is about to lose Octavian to the younger Sophie, another soprano.

The role requires a large, creamy voice that can convey a combination of intense passion, self-knowledge, and not a little world-weariness. Because the role has traditionally suited such grandes dames of opera as Lotte Lehman and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, we tend to think of the Marschallin as an older woman.

But Strauss and his brilliant librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, thought of her as only 35, just beginning to face her maturity. So who could be more appropriate than the glamorous, voluptuous-voiced, and expressive Renee Fleming?

Here she is in the final trio, one of the most gorgeously melting ensembles ever written for female voices, as the Marschallin relinquishes Octavian to the radiant Sophie.


SCHWARTZ: Renee Fleming reveals more than a beautiful voice here. Von Hofmannsthal's text is deeply poignant about our perceptions of the passing of time. "I chose to love him in the right way," the Marschallin sings, "so that I would love even his love for another. I truly didn't believe I would have to bear it so soon."

Fleming obviously cares about words, and understands what she's singing. Her German is impeccable, and we believe her completely, as we do in the other selections on this disk, the long opening scene of "Rosenkavalier," a duet from "Arabella," also with a Hofmannsthal libretto that would make a good play even without music, and the closing monologue from "Capriccio," in which the Countess has to decide which is more important in opera, the music or the words?

One nostalgic treat on this recording is the appearance in two walk-on roles of Walter Berry, the retired bass-baritone renowned in his younger days for his own Strauss performances. The extraordinarily high level of everyone involved in these excerpts makes me ache to have the complete operas.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of "The Boston Phoenix." He reviewed Renee Fleming's new recording, "Strauss Heroines."

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, Lloyd Schwartz
High: Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews soprano Renee Fleming's new recording of Strauss heroines with the Vienna Philharmonic.
Spec: Art; Entertainment; Music Industry

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Renee Fleming Shines in Her Latest Recording
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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