War through the eyes of a 5 yr-old, strength of the human spirit, and new school opens!

Blog entry created by: Teresa

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What can we learn from a 5 year old? A great deal about the capacity of the human spirit!

Five year-old Loung Ung didn’t know what to think when she was ripped from a comfortable middle class life in Phnom Pehn – forced to pack up a few belongings and flee the city of foot with her family.  The Khmer Rouge had taken over her country.  She and her family walked for days with little food trying to find a safe place to live in the country.  The Khmer Rouge asked for anyone who was educated (as her family members were) to step forward to help the new government.  It was a trick and her father knew it – they lied and said they were poor farmers – while the educated were rounded up and shot to death.

Try as she might with dirt, Luong could not disguise the lighter color of her skin

The Khmer Rouge wanted to create a “pure agrarian society”.  Loung’s family was considered to be contaminated with education, city ways, and Chinese blood.  Luong could pretend to be uneducated, she could pretend she had never lived in the city, but how could Loung and her family hide their lighter skin, or her mom’s Chinese accent?  Fear racked, disbelief and confusion racked Loung’s body as everything she ever knew to be good was turned upside down.  She and her family worked as if they were slaves in a village – growing crops that were used to pay back the Chinese for lending the Khmer Rouge money and weapons while Loung and her family slowly starved from meager rations.

Stealing a handful of rice

Loung watched her family members make sacrifices for the rest of them – her 10 year old brother allowed the chief’s children to beat him up for fun day after day in exchange for some scraps of food that he proudly brought home to his family. But she was only 5, and consumed with the drive to get food for herself.  Once she stole a handful of rice from the family’s meager emergency stash and worried she might have contributed to the starvation of her 3 year-old sister, her other siblings, and her parents.  What a horrible thing for a starving 5 year old to have to worry about!

Read Loung’s amazing book: First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers

After two years, her father – a pillar of strength and inspiration for the family, was taken away and killed.  (Hence the title of her book.) By then, the Khmer Rouge had started using hammers and pick axes to kill, as bullets were too precious to “waste”.  Did someone find out her father was educated? Would her mother be next?  Would her baby sister survive much longer with a swollen belly and so little food?  And what would become of Loung who fights so hard to survive?

Not only will you find out what happens to her family, you will be awed by the capacity of one little girl, and in fact, an entire people to live through the worst of times while hanging on to their good nature, gentleness and grace.

I would not recommend the book to children 12 and under, but teenagers (and everyone else!) can learn a lot from reading her book.  It is one that will stay with me throughout my life. Genocide is a horrible thing, and yet it has occurred many times in history.  The more we are aware of the danger, the better we can try to prevent it in the future.

We are amazed to find Cambodians who have lived through such horror, full of grace, life and joy (yes, joy!)

We have been to many countries and have been impressed with how well people deal with difficult life circumstances, but nowhere have we been more impressed with the spirit of the people than in Cambodia.  (This ruins us for bargaining well in the market – we end up wanting to pay more to insure the wonderful people we meet at the shops earn a living!)  We seem to fall in love with each person we meet, from the (adorable!) young babies, to the older folks who walk with such dignity.  We are also surprised that there is very little begging.  Even the many people who are disabled because of the war are usually selling books, playing music and selling CD’s or creating crafts to make a living.  If you say, “no thank you”, they smile, walk away and wish you a great day.  A big change from the street hawkers in many other countries!

Thank you for funding a new school for these wonderful people!

You donated over $19,000!  This has funded not only the new school, through American Assistance for Cambodia, but also computers, a solar panel to power them, the salary of an English teacher, books, and much more.  It does our hearts good to know that the school will benefit people who have suffered so much.  Where once they were persecuted for being educated, now they can hold their heads high, knowing that education is the key to building a better life, and that you cared enough to build them a school.

The “Ian Tilden School” opening ceremony – April 7th and 8th

Stay tuned for blog posts and a video showing the joy you have brought to the people of Preah Vihear in the Choam Ksan District of Cambodia.  We named the school in honor of Doug's son Ian, who passed away at a young age.  Ian was full of life and shared the enduring spirit of the Cambodian people, so it is appropriate that this school bears his name.  Ian would have been so proud to be part of a school that opens up a world of possibilities to young Cambodians through education.

If Preah Vihear sounds familiar to you, it may be because the people there were recently evacuated do to the military clashes between Thailand and Cambodia over ownership of the Preah Vihear Temple…and so the people there continue to endure the hardships of war.  But you have brought them hope as well as the tools to build a better life, and that will make all the difference!

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Posted on: March 21, 2011 | Categories: American Assistance for Cambodia, Blog, Cambodia, Education, History, News, Poverty, Primary School- Cambodia, World Conflicts



  • Emily says:

    Fascinating! Thank you for sharing, Teresa.

  • Thanks for sharing this, a very touching story that I think people need to hear, few people know what really happened in Cambodia during the regime of the Khmer Rouge.

    It seems like a great book.

  • Teresa Teresa says:

    I knew nothing of it myself before traveling to Cambodia. It’s hard to believe that some of us in this rather small world could be suffering so much and others of us oblivious to it. I’ve since read her second book, “Lucky Girl”, where she wrote about her life after the war in America, and her sister’s life in Cambodia. The war went on in her head and it was almost harder for her than for her sister who still faced real danger from the Khmer Rouge. Very interesting. I recommend it.

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