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May 6, 2003
Section: Local News

Author tells students about horrors of Cambodia
Repository staff writer

CANTON -- Loung Ung was 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge regime stormed into her hometown in Cambodia. It was April 17, 1975. Ung�s life changed forever.
Families were forced at gunpoint to evacuate the city of Phnom Penh, she recalls.

Gone was the life of privilege Ung had enjoyed as the daughter of a high-level politician.

Gone was the innocence of childhood.

Even the simplest of items were taken away � fresh clothes, soap and shoes, she said. Phnom Penh became a prison.

Ung nearly starved to death. She became so skinny that it hurt to sit on her father�s lap. Ung�s tiny bones would painfully rub against her father�s leg.

Instead of playing games, she became a child soldier. Drills included running zigzags to dodge bullets.

She and her girlfriends didn�t talk about cute boys. Instead, Ung taught them the 10 ways to kick and hurt a man.

Ung shared these and other horrifying tales with the students and staff at Timken High School on Monday. She has written the national bestseller, �First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.�

The Stark Education Partnership awarded a grant to the school for the purchase of more than 1,000 editions of Ung�s book. Timken Principal Kim Redmond and Canton City Schools administrator Joyce Lemke headed the project.

Students and staff � from custodians to librarians � have been reading the book, Redmond said.

She has been delighted with the response.

�I simply planted a seed,� Redmond said, �and the students and staff are growing it.�

Students have been assigned to read the book periodically during class. However, students also have read the book in the school cafeteria and on their own time, Redmond said.

�We�re trying to undergo a major transformation at Timken High School,� she said of educational programs. �This is a major step.�

�This is a rigorous academic activity we�re taking on as a school,� Redmond said, �and hopefully, it says to the community that we take learning very seriously at Timken High School.�

Ung told the students how the Khmer Rouge�s rule ended her charmed childhood.

Two million Cambodians died at the hands of Pol Pot and his regime, she said. Ung�s parents, two of her siblings and 20 of her relatives died during his reign.

Ung said she�s hurt when people question whether teenagers are too young to read her book.

�Nobody ever asked me if I was too young to go through it,� she said, Ung�s voice piercing through the darkened auditorium.

�War is difficult,� she added. �It shouldn�t be easy.�

�It was a war I couldn�t wake up from,� Ung said. �It was a war I couldn�t turn off � it was a war I had to live through.�

In 1980, Ung and her older brother escaped by boat to Thailand, where they spent five months in a refugee camp before moving to Vermont through a sponsorship by the Holy Family Church, she said.

Now she calls Cleveland home.

And she speaks about peace and land mines.

About 70 million land mines exist in 70 countries, including ones planted during World War II, according to Ung. Land mines kill nearly 30,000 people each year, she said.

Ung is a spokeswoman for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation�s Campaign for a Landmine Free World.

She held an old land mine in her hand � it was smaller than a baseball.

Land mines are �weapons of mass destruction in slow motion,� Ung said. �Taking one leg, one limb, one life at a time.�

She then used photos to show the nightmares that land mines leave behind.

Children wearing leg casts. Men in wheelchairs. Kids with stumps instead of feet or hands. Pants hanging on a clothesline, one leg shorter than the other.

�It�s a lifetime of scars and wounds repeated,� Ung said.

A song about land mines played. Students sat silent. Some grimaced at an image of an amputated leg.

�They know no distinction, be it soldier, be it child,� said the song.

�So scream your disapproval with every angry breath and help put an end to these gardens of hell.�

Ung, who speaks across the country, said that �people who survived the war have got to have a chance to survive the peacetime.�

Her words and pictures touched students such as Daneeca Ball, 18.

�Every time I think of what she�s been through,� she said, �I know I have an easier life.�

Ung�s survival inspired Ball.

�Given what she�s been through, I know I can keep going.�

You can reach Repository writer Ed Balint at (330) 580-8315 or e-mail:

Images associated with this article:
(Click to open) MEETING THE AUTHOR. Loung Ung, author of �First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers,� signs the book for Timken High School freshman Tiffany Meager. Ung spoke to students and staff Monday.

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