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Surviving the killing fields of Cambodia
Loung Ung
Women who have survived war and forever left their countries, do not remain silent and anonymous in their adoptive countries. They do not leave and forget, but from diaspora continue to speak and fight for the rights of those who remained. Loung Ung has survived the genocide in Cambodia, and today, from the United States, she uses her more privileged position to give back to those who were not as lucky as she was. She writes, lectures, travels, and teaches, working towards a more free and responsible world.
I'm a survivor of the Khmer genocide which took place in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979: four years in which Cambodia saw nearly 2 million people (of a population of 7 million) perish from starvation, disease, hard labor and execution.

When I was 8 years old, other children in other parts of the world were playing with toy guns, or playing Cowboys and Indians. I was in a real war zone, running away from real bombs, stepping over real dead bodies.

And I was so hungry that my body was eating itself from the inside out. It was a miracle that I survived. I arrived in America as a refugee of genocide when I was 10.

It's taken me many, many years to turn from being a victim to being a survivor - and an activist who advocates for peoples positive solutions to warfare. It was a very long transition. For many years, there was still a hunger that wouldn't go away, even though I had a big plate of food in front of me.

For many years, I was still startled from the sound of low flying planes, the explosion of fireworks, and the kick of a cars engine that brought me back to a time when I was victim.

About the time I turned 16, I started asking myself: Why me? Why did I make it? Why am I not dead when my mother, father, sisters, twenty other relatives are? Why am I here? And about that same time, somebody put Viktor Frankl's book "Man's Search for Meaning" in my hands and it really changed for me.

The book, focused on the Holocaust, argues that those who search for meaning in their life have a higher percentage for survival and end up being stronger in the ups and downs of life than those who don't. And I started to search for the meaning of why I survived, what I was put here to do.

So why me? Now I am 36 years old. It's 26 years since I left Cambodia. To be honest, I don't have an answer to why me. I don't know why I survived and not others. And I'm getting to be okay with that. I'm getting to be okay with the fact that life is not fair. But I have also discovered our ability to make a difference out of precisely the things that are most unfair and unjust-our ability to speak out and use our voices to call for change.

I started first, fresh out of college, working as an activist in a domestic violence agency. Then I worked on issues of child soldiers. And then I began working as a spokesperson for The Campaign for a Landmine Free World; which was part of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. I am proud our effort and our collective voices won us the Nobel Peace Prize. And I've also published two books on my personal experiences with genocide to help raise awareness and funds to help survivors of wars survive their peace time.

I don't know exactly how much power I do or don't have to affect change. I don't know if I have that big of a voice. But that doesn't stop me because the fact that I have a voice at all is a phenomenal thing. I grew up as a girl child in a war zone, very aware that I had no voice. I had no power. I had no visibility.

It's just too easy to just get disillusioned, to feel that we need to take care of our own lives first and not worry about anything else. It's so easy to look at the bigger world out there, and think, "If I worried about it, if I spoke out about it, it would just become too overwhelming, too painful. I'm powerless to make a difference."

Perhaps the people who believe their voices will make no difference have never been to the killing fields of Cambodia-- and looked down knowing 20,000 human beings had been dropped there, their words and thoughts and voices silenced. Perhaps they don't know what it is like to live in a place where to speak out means death-not only for you but for your family and loved ones as well.

Or perhaps they are discouraged by the fact that they don't see direct evidence of how their actions make an impact. But I know small actions make a difference because it was small actions of others that got me to where I am today. It was the nurses in Cambodia who saved me, the teachers trying to teach me English, it was the refugee workers trying to teach me about America. It was the Red Cross and United Children's efforts and people who brought over blankets and life medicines and food. Those people who helped me probably wouldn't recognize me if I saw them today, but they changed my life.

And the truth is, your inactions make a difference too-just as tangible, and in a negative direction. Your silence gives other people permission to be silent. Your inaction gives other people permission to be complacent.

So my advice to those looking to make a change: just do the best you can. Work toward the changes you think are needed but do not get broken when those changes have not been made. Take care of yourself. And continue to do it. Somewhere along the line, changes are being made all the time, and sometimes those changes are made in places and are affecting lives of faces you will probably never see. And that's the wonderful thing about change.


To buy Loung Ung's book"First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers" please go to Amazon Books.

Victoria Cia
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