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Riding With The Dragon


By Jeff Guerrero

Illustration by Stasia Burrington -

Among Loung Ung’s earliest memories are those of riding beside her mother in a pedal-powered rickshaw to the markets of Phnom Penh. Born in 1970, Loung (which means dragon) lived a comfortable life as a middle-class Cambodian child. She had the love and guidance of two dedicated parents and the affection of her six siblings. Much of her free time was spent visiting the movie theater across the street from her childhood home and seeking out the tastiest fried crickets from the multitude of street vendors.

Her comfortable world came crashing down when a militant communist regime, the Khmer Rouge, seized control of the country in 1975. Under the extremist policies of Pol Pot and his supporters, many of Cambodia’s most affluent, intellectual and artistic citizens were summarily executed. The middle class city dwellers of Phnom Penh, including the Ung family, were evicted to the Cambodian countryside at gunpoint and organized into forced-labor “reeducation camps.” An estimated 1.7 million people died in the four years that followed, including both of Loung’s parents and two of her three sisters.

The adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” couldn’t have been more true with regard to Loung. Fearless and aggressive from the traumas of war, she was selected for training as a child-soldier under the Khmer Rouge. At the age of nine she successfully defended herself against an attempted rape by a full-grown male soldier. At age 10 she fled to Thailand with her oldest brother, Meng, riding out of Cambodia on the back of his bicycle. They subsequently moved to the United States, along with Meng’s wife, to begin a new life with an entirely new set of challenges.