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February 25th, 2009 JAMES PITKIN | News Stories
 

A Survivor’s Story

Kilong Ung watched his parents die in Cambodia. Now he hopes for justice.

     
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TRAGIC PAST: Kilong Ung is overcome by grief while speaking about his late mother.
IMAGE: Ben Mollica

As trials begin in Cambodia for five former government officials accused of aiding the Khmer Rouge regime, one survivor will be watching from his adopted home 7,000 miles away in North Portland.

Kilong Ung, who lost his parents and nearly starved to death in Cambodia’s killing fields, says the United Nations tribunal that began Feb. 4 will help heal wounds still crippling his Southeast Asian homeland.

But they won’t end the insomnia, depression, nightmares and paranoia that still haunt him 30 years after surviving the genocide that killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians.

“A crime like that needs to be accounted for,” says Ung, a software engineer who lives with his wife and two children in New Columbia Villa. “Justice is very important so we can prevent the future crime. It’s not about revenge—it’s about the future.”

Ung is unsure of his true age but believes he’s probably 48, which would have made him 15 when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. He was then living in the city of Battambang in Northwest Cambodia with his parents and seven sisters. When the Khmer Rouge swept into town, they forced his family into camps where they worked 13 hours a day.

Daily rations were two tiny bowls of rice porridge, plus whatever wildlife they could catch. His mother grew weak, but she refused to eat the rats he caught.

“To some people, they would rather die than go that route. My mother was one of those,” Ung says. “Eating rats—if you get to that point, you’re pretty much dead anyway. You’re no longer human.”

In addition to his mother and father, Ung lost his youngest sister and seven other relatives to starvation and disease. When the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, he fled to Thailand with his older sister, Sivheng, and her boyfriend, Van Mealy Touch.

The three came to America as refugees and found Touch’s brother living in Portland. Ung graduated from Cleveland High School and Reed College, where he earned a math degree in 1987. His Facebook page says: “I survived the Khmer Rouge genocide, English language and Reed College.”

Ung married his high-school girlfriend, Elizabeth Rowe (now Lisa Ung), and became active in Oregon’s 5,000-strong Cambodian community, coordinating relief to his homeland and lobbying Congress for assistance.

“He is a character bigger than life. And there aren’t many people I would say that about,” says Darin Honn, a lawyer and past president of the Rotary Club of Portland, where Ung is a member.

Work and family occupy Ung’s daytime hours. But nightmares still rob him of sleep. News of the Iraq war, reports of detainee torture, and even Fourth of July fireworks all bring flashbacks.

He’s just finished a book about life under the Khmer Rouge—forcing himself to relive it for the first time. He calls the book, which he plans to self-publish this summer, Golden Leaf. He hopes his book—like the U.N. tribunal—will lift the burden of the past and help others understand the horror his people endured.

“On the one hand, I wanted to free myself from this memory. On the other hand, I was afraid to lose that memory,” he says. “Anything I put down in the book, I am clear from it now.... And my nightmares are better.”


FACT: Kilong Ung will speak about life under the Khmer Rouge at the Center for Intercultural Organizing, 700 N Killingsworth St., on March 6, at 7 pm.
 
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