The Khmer Rouge terrified Cambodia when the group ruled the country in the 1970s. On Thursday, the two most senior surviving leaders of the regime received life sentences for crimes against humanity. For more on the sentencing, Melissa Block talks with Loung Ung, who has written about losing her family during the Khmer Rouge's reign.
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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
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And I'm Melissa Block. It took 35 years but now for the first time a war crimes tribunal in Cambodia has found two senior leaders of the former Khmer Rouge regime guilty of crimes against humanity. During their genocidal rule from 1975 to 79 the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million Cambodians, a quarter of the population. The two leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were convicted of murder, extermination and other inhumane acts. They're both in their 80s. They were sentenced to life in prison and will appeal. The Cambodian author and activist Loung Ung has been following the trial. She was five-years-old when her family was forced from the capital, Phnom Penh, part of a massive forced marched to the countryside. Her parents, two sisters and 20 other relatives died under the Khmer Rouge regime. And Loung Ung joins me now from Cleveland where she lives. Ms. Ung welcome to the program.
LOUNG UNG: Happy to be here.
BLOCK: And first of all your reaction to these verdicts when he first heard them.
UNG: My reaction was surprising to me because I'd been following the tribunal since 1997 and have gone through the gambit of motions. And so I thought that I knew how I was going to feel. And I was very surprised by the rush of emotions and it's a sense of sadness that was there again but also of pride, that we survived it.
BLOCK: You were a very young girl during the Khmer Rouge years, what are your memories from that time and your life under that regime?
UNG: My first memory of the Khmer Rouge was the day they came into the city. I was five years old playing hopscotch with my sisters on the street. And they came in their trucks with their guns and their grenades and wearing big smiles screaming for us that the war was over, the war was over. And I didn't even known we had been in a war. And the next thing I know, literally they were shooting their guns into the air and telling us to leave the city, telling us to leave home. My next memory was when they came for my father and I was seven-years-old. You'll never forget the feelings of knowing you will never see your father again.
BLOCK: What about your mother?
UNG: Three days after my father was taken we were told that - most likely been executed. And three months after that my mother gathered my brothers and sisters and I around and said that we have to leave her. She said we had to take a different name, find an orphanage when we get there don't tell each other what other names we'd taken and don't come back to her. And I was barely eight-years-old and I didn't want to go and she turned by my shoulders and pushed me out the door. And I left thinking my mother was weak, thinking she didn't love me, feeling abandoned and it would take me many years to realize that she did the only thing she could because she knew that the soldiers were not only coming for the people they've killed but they were now coming after the daughters and mothers and brothers and sisters of the people they've taken and a year they came for my mother and four-year-old sister and they have never been heard from again.
BLOCK: Luong Ung there are now a couple of generations of Cambodians who would have no memory of the Khmer Rouge years and I wonder if for them this verdict may seem very abstract, of a time they just have no connection to, as strange as that must seem to you.
UNG: It really is. I went to the first trial for Duch, the director of S-21 prison center in the middle of Phnom Penh...
BLOCK: Mhm, this was a few years ago.
UNG: I remember sitting in the court and seeing a group of 29 university students who came to listen to the trial. And I went up to them and spoke to a couple of them and asked them why they're there. And they said to me, at first they didn't believe this happened. And I think it's so important, this tribunal is a process not just for justice - 'cause we'll never be able to find justice for the 1.7 to 2 million Cambodians who died from starvations, executions, diseases and hard labor. But it's also an educational forum so that the young people know what happened and know that they must not forget what happened.
BLOCK: Loung Ung, I appreciate you taking time to talk to us. Thanks so much.
UNG: Thank you.
BLOCK: Loung Ung is the author of the book "First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.