Among a total of 13 siblings, it was Sivheng who most resembled their father. Kilin Ung was a businessman who traded in the teak and rosewood used in construction and furniture throughout Southeast Asia. He spoke French, Cantonese and Vietnamese, along with his native Cambodian, or Khmer, and could read and write in Thai. He also spoke some English. He taught all the children to fix things, even sending them up —boys and girls alike — to repair the roof.
But it was Sivheng — the family tomboy, the girl who climbed mango and tamarind trees and picked fights with neighborhood boys, the girl who refused to learn how to cook — to whom this father was closest. Beginning when she was just 2 years old, he taught her to read. He imparted his wisdom, including this admonition: No matter how bad you’ve got it, someone else has it worse. In dire moments, he counseled, don’t look up. Look down.
“My dad’s words, they helped me through the killing fields,” said Sivheng Ung, now a 68-year-old widow living in a trim house in Northeast Portland.
The brutality inflicted upon the Cambodian people during a five-year reign of terror by the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge is impossible to exaggerate. Close to 2 million people, approximately one-quarter of the country’s 1975 population, perished at the hands of rebels who sought to turn a country the size of the state of Wisconsin into a socialist agrarian utopia. Some estimates of the death toll are even higher. Mass executions were commonplace, with victims dumped into vast, collective graves. Forced labor claimed countless victims who were worked literally to their deaths. Physical and sexual abuse abounded, as did malnutrition and disease.
The Khmer Rouge, headed by a despot called Pol Pot, operated 196 prisons. About 20,000 people passed through just one such facility, Tuol Sleng, also called Security Prison 21 (or S-21). Only seven adults and five children survived to recount the horrors.
Pol Pot took the most venal lessons of both Nazism and Stalinism and applied them to his own people. From the former, the Nazis who exterminated 6 million people because they were Jewish, Roma or otherwise non-Aryan, Pol Pot embraced racial determinism. From Stalin, Pol Pot took contempt for a class system that rewarded educational achievement or accumulated wealth. He endorsed a harsh new social system that meant breaking the spirits of all but those who were most blindly loyal to him.
Anyone associated with the former Cambodian government was especially targeted. Professionals, intellectuals and followers of any religion were murdered by rebels who espoused state atheism. Around 50,000 Buddhist monks alone were killed. The elderly, the infirm and the disabled typically were shot on the spot. A person could be killed for speaking a foreign language, wearing glasses, smiling or crying.
“To spare you is no profit,” went a familiar regime slogan. “To destroy you is no loss.”
In Sivheng Ung’s household in the northwestern city of Battambang, the first clear indication of what the Khmer Rouge invasion of 1975 would bring came in the form of an immediate, dramatic decline in the family’s lumber-hauling business. Sivheng had just finished high school, a rigorous program that awarded three diplomas to those who passed the tough state exams.
“Many people did not pass, but I did,” she said.
But the school girl who scored an equivalent of what would be a straight-A average in the United States was also notoriously mischievous. Her tree-climbing prowess prompted one friend to nickname her “monkey.” The monkey-girl, just 4 feet, 11 inches tall, knew she could stir up trouble with little consequence because of her family’s prominence.
“They considered my father ‘The Man’ in the village,” Sivheng said. “I knew they couldn’t touch me. That gave me confidence. I could do anything.”
Within reason, she stressed: “I didn’t do bad things. Even today I don’t curse.”
The unrest that pushed Pol Pot into power actually began well before the French-educated tyrant seized control. Almost a century of rule from Paris ended in Cambodia in 1953, during a time when France decolonized its numerous holdings in Southeast Asia.
In 1970, Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the head of state, was deposed in a coup led by his own prime minister, Lon Nol. Lon Nol promptly declared himself president, embarking on an erratic five-year tenure that allowed Khmer Rouge rebels to establish deep inroads. When Lon Nol fled to exile in the United States in 1975, his name was first on the list of officials the Khmer Rouge intended to assassinate.
As the Khmer Rouge proliferated, gaining steadily in power through ruthless tactics, Sivheng Ung’s father watched his business dry up.
“He could not go to the forest for wood,” his daughter said, “or he would be killed.”
With so many children, it was Sivheng in whom her father was most likely to confide. He took her to movies and taught her about historical events, notably the Nazi Holocaust in Germany.
“We talked about the Gestapo, about how they would kill you,” Sivheng said. “And then we talked about the Chinese communists. He told me, ‘When the communists come, they’re going to kill a lot of people. They’re going to take away everything you own. They will give you only one plate and one spoon.’”
At night, he warned, “There will be spies under your bed.”
From her father she knew that the Khmer Rouge invasion was taking place. And she came later to remember his political prescience.
“During the communists, Pol Pot, it was just like everything my dad told me,” Sivheng said.
Still, even he could not foresee the extent of the horror.
Marriage and the Forced March
Just months before the communists took control of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, Sivheng married a young accountant named Savat. She was 23; he was just 21. As was not uncommon in their culture, they were “kind of related” through her mother’s side of the family. She met him once at age 7, and “he stuck in my heart,” she says. Years later, they reconnected when Sivheng traveled to the capital hoping to become a teacher or possibly a banker. When she spotted him at the bank where he worked, she waved.
“And then we connected,” she said. “I think it was fate. From 7 years (old) to 23 years (old), I remembered him.”
The two families gathered for a traditional wedding, “no bombs or anything” in spite of the rebel activity. But when the newlyweds drove her mother to the airport to fly back to Battambang, “there were bombs, bombs, bombs.”
Soon enough, the bliss of their new marriage was interrupted. Moving from door to door, the Khmer Rouge fighters ordered residents out of their homes on the pretext that Americans were about to drop bombs on the city. The dissidents came during the day, when men were traditionally in the workplace. Sivheng’s mother-in-law and her husband’s siblings had gathered at her house when they were told to leave.
“We had no choice,” she said.
Trauma is a well-known breeding ground for black humor. Sivheng still laughs when she talks about what her mother-in-law insisted on carrying with her.
“For my mother-in-law, a television was a big luxury. It meant you had class. It meant you had money,” she said.
So her tiny Cambodian mother-in-law lugged the television set out with them. She also brought Sivheng’s fancy wedding shoes along with her daughter-in-law’s best clothes and jewelry. She had seven children with her, but neither her husband nor Sivheng’s were with them; both had gone to work that day at the bank.
“We didn’t know where they were,” said Sivheng, “(or) if they were dead or alive.”
What a sight the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh must have been: 1 million people walking in the streets, all headed in a common direction toward a destination they could not guess. Soldiers with guns drawn, some as young as 7 or 8 years old, lined the streets. Anyone who hesitated was shot. Sivheng and her family held hands, knowing that if they were separated they might not find one another again. The crowd was so deep they could not see the ground. It was April, the hottest month of the year in Cambodia. Steam rose up from the street and dirt flew.
“I felt so numb, scared. I didn’t know what to think,” Sivheng remembered before letting out a bittersweet laugh. “Even then, my mother-in-law would not let go of the TV and my shoes.”
At nightfall as they marched, they were ordered to stop and sleep along the road. No food was offered.
“The tomboy thing helped me,” she said. “I snuck out to forage for us. I saw an empty house and grabbed some pots and pans and whatever I could find. We lived like animals. Like animals.”
Two weeks into the evacuation, Sivheng saw a friend from high school and begged him to take her fishing. Enormous craters from B-52 bombs had produced basins now filled with water and fish. At last there was some protein for her family.
Along the road, people regularly collapsed from exhaustion. Decomposed bodies littered the landscape. One night, Sivheng fell asleep next to someone who by daylight turned out to be dead.
“When I tell you this, I can still smell him,” she said.
As the trek to a remote, still-unknown area continued, they dodged land mines on the dirt roads and passed through dark clouds of mosquitoes.
“In the morning, we looked like we had the measles,” she said, not laughing this time.
They were barefoot and had no food.
When they arrived in the village that the Khmer Rouge had transformed into a forced labor camp, there was her husband. With or without mosquito bites, he was overjoyed to see her.
“He hugged me so tight I couldn’t breathe,” Sivheng said.
And then they were herded into the fields to begin their assigned work, picking potatoes under the blazing Southeast Asian sun. Families crowded together in small, primitive huts. The soldiers gave them no rice, only dried corn — inedible unless it was cooked for hours. But they had no firewood, and venturing into forests filled with tigers was too dangerous. In any case, child spies followed them everywhere. Even to cross the street, they had to ask permission.
“We had no rights,” Sivheng said.
But they did have a new collective name. “They called us ‘New People,’ ‘the Enemy,’” she said. “They hated people like us from the city. They called us American slaves. All the women, they considered us like sluts, no morals. They looked at us with disgust.”
Money had also been abolished. So the cash her mother-in-law had spirited out now meant nothing. Secretly, and at great personal risk, the “New People” sometimes traded clothes in exchange for favors from the communist soldiers, who, it turned out, were not all ideologically above nice things. One day, Sivheng asked her mother-in-law what had happened to the TV set. Turned out the soldiers had pointed a gun at her and ordered her to leave it. The absurdity was inescapable.
“We all laughed,” Sivheng said.
Also at gunpoint, soldiers came and dragged her 14-year-old sister-in-law away.
“They killed her, but before they killed her, they raped her,” Sivheng said.
One day, the soldiers took her husband and father-in-law aside for questioning.
“You know, when they question you, they will come back and kill you,” she said.
Sivheng told her husband they had to escape, right away.
“If we stay,” she told him, “they are going to kill all of us.”
Her in-laws agreed, telling her: You need to go.
They could not take anything more than the clothes they were wearing. When soldiers demanded, “Comrades, where are you going?” they said they were headed to the next village to get some fish. They continued this ruse for a week, walking leisurely so as not to arouse suspicion. By night they slept wherever they could, no longer fearful of tigers or other forest predators.
Survivors’ skills kicked in. As they gained distance, they changed their story. They asked children in each village they passed what the name of the next village was. Then, adopting anguished expressions and using the name of the village, they told guards at the checkpoints: “My mother in the next village, she is very, very sick.”
Sivheng feigned illiteracy. But she would also learn the name of each village chief. Then she forged a permission slip, “signed” with the chief’s name. The guards could not read, so when she showed them the so-called document, they would pretend to examine it and then wave them on.
At one point, a security guard tried to stop them. Instead they persuaded the village chief that the document was real and were allowed to sleep there. Sivheng addressed the chief and his wife as “Father” and “Mother,” showing them the respect their titles afforded, or “Mommy” and “Daddy” when she wanted to show how beholden she was to them. She complimented them constantly, making them feel important.
When a friendly village woman whispered to Sivheng that she would blend in better if she cut her long, silky hair, Sivheng found scissors and hacked her hair to just below her ears. Again, she found herself summoning a lesson from her father.
“Don’t be a tall tree, be a blade of grass,” he advised.
“The grass blows in every direction,” he also counseled. “The tree falls down.”
Eventually the couple told the man they were calling “Daddy” that they were going out to find fish. Again they escaped. They walked and walked, until a young soldier surprised them by sharing food with them. He told them that their best bet was to play dumb.
“Be blind, be deaf, be mute,” he advised. “That way, you survive.”
Just about then a truck stopped near them. Among the captives aboard the truck, Sivheng saw one of her old teachers. His hands were bound and his face bore the saddest expression she had ever seen. She knew the soldiers were going to kill him. Without betraying anything to the soldiers, Sivheng tried to use her gaze to tell her teacher that she was so, so sorry.
The Killing Fields
Their grim odyssey continued, on and on for more than a year. Sivheng became pregnant, but lost the baby — most likely to malnutrition. At one point, they found themselves running from villagers armed with guns. They ran through thorns and brambles, bleeding, “just like in ‘The Killing Fields’ movie,” she said.
Rounded up by soldiers once again, they were taken to another village: “No ‘New People,’ purely communists,” Sivheng said. This time, they did not dare to run again. Questioned about what they were doing out there on their own, Sivheng said they had fled because soldiers in the last village were about to rape her. Again the couple was put to work. A year passed before they were sent to yet another village, this one populated by other “New People.”
Conditions were terrible: “One meal a day, a common kitchen, one plate, one spoon, just like my father said. One scoop of porridge, and if you were late, you got nothing. As time passed, the porridge got thinner and thinner, just water.”
When soldiers came to take her husband to be “re-educated,” Sivheng knew the worst was about to happen. “Ninety-nine percent certain,” she said, “he would be killed.”
Fear and hardship had turned her both numb and mute.
“I lost my husband, my baby, and still I could not cry,” she said. “I was too afraid.”
Stashed in what was known as the widows’ hut, she grew sick and malnourished. She could not swallow. She cried so hard at night that when she stopped, people thought she was dead. She grew bloated, swollen like a dead body that has floated too long in a river. She thought about killing herself, but remembered that “Buddha said, if you kill yourself, I cannot help you.”
Hoping Buddha might overlook a last meal of possibly tainted seafood, she ate two crabs and fell unconscious. Instead of killing her, the crabs saved her, fueling her with needed nutrients. She grew strong enough to work her way to a village called Leuk Daek, close to the border with Vietnam in Southeast Cambodia.
But by then a new kind of chaos had overtaken Cambodia. Vietnamese troops had begun to invade the country. Pandemonium broke out as Pol Pot’s soldiers fought one another. Sivheng found herself surrounded by communists, the “Old People.” Again they were ordered to march, finally ending up in a Cambodian village she describes as “almost medieval.”
Rumors abounded. The Vietnamese would descend, they were told, and eat human flesh. Yet again they were moved, this time to a village near Siem Reap. Dig a trench, they were ordered. They knew the ditch was intended to house their own dead bodies.
Renewed turmoil among the soldiers ultimately saved them. This time, everyone ran. When Sivheng saw a Vietnamese tank rolling in, she was excited, worried and confused. She saw Pol Pot soldiers beaten to death in front of her.
With nothing to lose, she befriended a Vietnamese captain and told him she wanted to see her family. Demanding nothing in return, he gave her a ride back to Battambang, many kilometers away.
“I expected to see my mom, my dad, my family,” she said. “But I got there and there was nobody. My mom, my dad, my grandma, all gone. My younger sister, gone. All the in-laws, gone. My older sister, first and second sister and then the fourth sister and the sixth, and all the men — all killed.”
Sivheng was 28 years old.
In fact, among such a large family, four sisters had managed to survive. Terror persisted. No one knew if the mass killings would continue. When a man from Phnom Penh named Van Touch, who had been married to her cousin, came to say he was leaving for Thailand, Sivheng begged him to let her come along. He hesitated, then assented. He was not happy when Sivheng insisted on bringing her youngest brother, Kilong, just 12 years old, with them.
Van Touch was only a year older than Sivheng. He was handsome, with curly black hair. Their birth years made them compatible.
“He’s a Tiger, I’m a Rabbit,” she explained, referring to signs of the Asian zodiac. “In our mythical way, a Tiger is very strong, and a Rabbit is very smart. You can get out of any situation.”
Already, that had proved true. After all, the communists had forced her to dig her own grave, and still she had escaped.
Windows of Humanity
Their final attempt at freedom was unencumbered by suitcases or other possessions because, as Sivheng pointed out with a justifiable note of bitterness, by that time they had nothing. In one village on the way to the Thai border, Van Touch found his sister. She joined them in a trek still fraught with peril.
“The Khmer Rouge, they were always around, especially at night,” Sivheng said. “They were so inhumane, so evil.”
For instance, she said, Khmer Rouge soldiers who came upon escaped parties such as theirs would rob them of whatever they could take. For further humiliation, they forced their Cambodian countrymen — and women — to disrobe. They then conducted invasive body examinations, searching for jewels or money that might be hidden in private areas, but also seeking to demean and dehumanize their captives.
Whenever this happened, said Sivheng, “I was sure I would be killed, and certain that I would be raped.”
Van Touch had the advantage of understanding English, so in villages he could listen to American broadcasts on the radio that gave accounts of regional fighting. Land mines were everywhere. The only way to be sure to avoid these explosives, said Sivheng, was to walk in footsteps already on the ground. With no money to bribe a guide to help them, they were on their own.
“Even going to the bathroom, people were blown up,” she said. “We didn’t see it, but we heard the blasts and the screaming.”
They met up with a wealthy man who claimed he could get them all across the border because he had a rich relative in Bangkok, Thailand. Halfway to the border, he abandoned them, too.
But there were tiny windows of humanity as well. Sivheng was fearful when they came across a cluster of people with guns who spoke only Thai. When they ordered Sivheng and the others to sit, she assumed they were about to be killed. Instead they passed around some of the food they had brought with them.
“Canned tuna!” Sivheng said, still marveling at the good fortune that had befallen them. “I hadn’t eaten anything like that in five years. Each bite was heaven.”
Their benefactors led them through the thorny jungle to the river that divided Cambodia from Thailand. They plunged in and swam across. Instantly they spied the reward for their arduous journey and their years of suffering.
“We saw the camp, and we thought, ‘That’s freedom!’” she said.
For five years, under the tyranny of Pol Pot, all they had been permitted to wear was black and white. Any expression of happiness carried the risk of torture or death. Now, said Sivheng, the people they saw wore beautiful colors, “and they smile!”
Sivheng thought of Van Touch as little more than a friend. He protected her and her brother, and in the Thai camp, he found fish and vegetables for them.
“I thought, ‘Good man,’” she remembered.
Others, however, suspected that more than friendship might be involved. They called Van Touch and Sivheng “kissing cousins,” even though neither of them had a mind at that time for love. As was required of them, they called each other “comrade,” never using a formal name.
Several times in the Thai camp, Sivheng was approached by men offering her promises of a glamorous life filled with luxury and excitement. Sivheng was savvy enough to know that what they really had in mind for her was sexual slavery.
“They made it sound like heaven — a house, gold,” she said. “But I am not stupid. I am starving (at that time), but I am not stupid.”
A Final Choice for Freedom
From their first refugee camp, Kok Suong, they were transferred to a camp called Mai Rut. Van Touch’s proficiency in English made him a vital assistant to United Nations officials who wanted to develop medical records and other documentation for the refugees. He met up with an American named Walter Stanley Mooneyham, who had been a missionary during the war, and now headed a Christian humanitarian group called World Vision. Mooneyham promised to help Van Touch and his companions, by now a sort of ragtag, de facto family, find speedy passage to safety.
“They asked us, “Do you want to go to France, Russia, China or the United States?” Sivheng said. Though Van Touch had friends in France, he had set his mind on America as the ultimate symbol of freedom.
“I didn’t know one from the other,” Sivheng said. “I just wanted to survive.”
Sponsors found them housing. Van Touch found work as a teacher’s assistant and Sivheng enrolled in school, hoping to learn English. After seven months, Van Touch learned that his brother had made his way to Portland, Oregon.
“So we moved to Portland,” Sivheng said.
Though they shared an apartment for nearly four years, Sivheng insists that romance was not part of her relationship with Van Touch. Still, she knew he was interested in more than friendship. In 1984, they were married.
“I go with my heart,” Sivheng explained. “This man, he had been taking care of me. He asked nothing in return.”
Life in the United States
Blessings and sadness alike have marked the years in the United States. “Plucked out of the jungle and into the city,” as Sivheng describes it, their cultural learning curve was steep. The cruelties they had witnessed and lived through took their toll. Sivheng experienced what can only be called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, falling into deep depression. Van Touch, too, battled demons in his soul.
Van Touch held many jobs, eventually attending culinary school and opening a restaurant in Beaverton called The Grape Leaf. He channeled his personal anguish into hard work, to the point, Sivheng said, where he couldn’t make time for his own family. In 2018, Van Touch died. The official cause was a heart attack, but Sivheng believes he worked himself to death, a kind of fatal compensation for all their years of deprivation.
Thirty-eight years had passed since their ordeal in Cambodia, she noted, “and still he felt it.”
Their son, Anthony, known as Tony, died in a motorcycle accident at age 23. Sivheng had little use for those who praised her strength in the wake of her son’s death. She knew too much about death, she wanted to tell them, too much.
And again, she seized on her father’s admonition to remember that someone always had it worse. Unlike so many mothers in her own country, she said, she at least got to say goodbye to her son.
Kilong Ung, the younger brother Sivheng rescued from Battambang, won a scholarship to Reed College in Portland, earned a graduate degree and married his high school sweetheart. An American family, the parents of his best friend, formally adopted him. He wrote a book, “Golden Leaf: A Khmer Rouge Genocide Survivor,” recounting not only his own difficult journey to freedom, but the struggles of his country as a whole. “Golden Leaf” refers to “one who survives against extreme odds.”
One irony of Sivheng’s time in the labor camps was that she lost — or gained, depending on how you look at it — five years. Her actual birth year was 1951, but somewhere along the line it was recorded as 1956. Many women would kill for such an error, but Sivheng notes, “I had to work longer for retirement.”
In actual fact, she is not one to sit around and do nothing.
“It’s boring,” she said.
Working helps her to concentrate and not think about what she has been through.
“It beats depression,” she said.
Friendship and Adjustments
It was one of her brother’s Portland schoolteachers, Clara Buck, who launched Sivheng on a path that became both a passion and a profession. Arriving at their apartment to pay a visit, Buck brought flowers to Sivheng. Soon she had taught Sivheng the art of flower arranging. Sivheng’s home today is filled with colorful and complicated arrangements of artificial flowers.
Their friendship has lasted for 40 years.
“Clara became my mentor. Everything you see here,” Sivheng said, gesturing around her living room, “everything is inspired by her.”
Sivheng may have endured unimaginable horrors under Pol Pot and the communists, but in a new country, with a new language and a new culture, she had new obstacles to overcome.
“Clara, she taught me how to survive,” said Sivheng.
Along with her flower business, Sivheng did housecleaning for “rich ladies,” women who paid her handsomely and often made gifts of furniture, clothing or other essentials. These random acts of generosity helped cement a sense of connection to the United States, even before Sivheng and her husband attained full citizenship 20 years ago.
“My husband always said ‘America is full of angels,’” she said. “And my husband did not give many compliments. He was very critical.”
Sivheng, for her part, is quick to agree with Van Touch’s assessment
“I appreciate America. I appreciate people here,” she said. “Look where I come from. I come from Cambodia, where they killed 2 million of our own people.”
Twenty years ago, Sivheng began working as a parent-educator at IRCO, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, in Portland. From her own experiences, she has learned a lot about plodding through difficulties and adjusting to confusing new circumstances.
She tells her story today in hopes that knowledge and information gleaned from her ordeal will help break the chain of human cruelty that continues with mass killings and repression, even in the 21st century.
“I am not looking for sympathy,” Sivheng cautioned. “I just want to make people aware.”
And still she has dark days. She has lost her husband and her son, along with too many family members to count. Instead of dwelling on these tragic events, she heeds her father’s lesson: Someone, somewhere, is suffering even more.
These same words that got her through the killing fields continue to inform her life.
Special thanks to Roland Neveu for providing photographs used in this story. They were published with permission. Copyright by Roland Neveu.