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My Harrowing Escape from Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and How That Led to a Friendship with Angelina Jolie

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Omar Havana/Getty Images

Loung Ung had seen more by the age of 10 than most people experience in a lifetime.

Ung was raised in an upper middle class family in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, her father a military officer in the previous Lon Nol government. Her world was turned upside down on April 17, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge, ruled by dictator Pol Pot, stormed into the Cambodian capital and forced two million people to evacuate.

All those who resisted were shot and killed on sight.

For the next five years, Ung was separated from her parents (they were killed by the Khmer Rouge) and siblings, tortured, held in captivity, and forced to train as a child soldier, before finally escaping to the United States in June 1980 with her brother Meng and his new wife Eang.

Ung detailed her experience in the 2000 memoir, First They Killed My Father, which has been adapted into a new feature film by director Angelina Jolie and will begin streaming on Netflix next month. In February, Ung saw the film for the first time at the Cambodian premiere.

“I was quite anxious and nervous for my family in Cambodia and other Cambodians to see it,” she tells PEOPLE. “The day of the premiere in Cambodia, I could not sleep all night. I had brought in 33 of my immediate family members — all my surviving siblings, their spouses, children and other relatives to see the film. We sat together in the dark as the film played and I listened to my family laugh, cry, gasp, and then go silent toward the end. I think I held my breath that whole time. And when it was all over, my family came up to me and told me they loved the film. I finally breathed that day. The film is moving and beautiful.”

The night the Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh
A 5-year-old Ung was playing when trucks roared through the streets. “For as long as I live, I will never forget April 17, 1975 — the day the Khmer Rouge soldiers stormed into our city,” she recalls. “I was playing hopscotch with my sister Chou when the rows of trucks crowded with men in black shirts and pants entered the city. At first, the people in the city cheered their arrival but we soon stopped when the soldiers pulled out their bullhorns and began to scream at us to leave the city. They told us the city was going to be bombed and if we didn’t leave, we would die. To make their point, the soldiers shot their rifles into the air. We later found out that they shot dead those who refused to leave.”

Forced to leave immediately, the Ungs packed a truck and drove until the vehicle ran out of fuel. They walked for days before temporarily settling in an occupied village. Moving from village to village — trying to hide Loung’s father’s identity from the Khmer Rouge soldiers — the family was transferred to the town of Ro Leap, which was, in essence, a hard labor camp where every person was forced to toil for long hours with little food. In Ro Leap, the family was forcibly separated by the Khmer Rouge and Loung never saw her parents, or two of her sisters, ever again.

To save her children’s lives, Ung’s mother sent her kids out of Ro Leap, telling them to pretend to be orphans and never to return
Terrified by screams and the sudden disappearance of their neighbors, Ung’s mother Ay snuck Loung and two of her siblings out of Ro Leap. The youngest, only four at the time, remained with Ay. Three older children had already been taken to separate labor camps, where one had died. “At the time, I thought my mother was weak for sending me away after the soldiers had taken my father,” says Ung. “As a woman, I cannot begin to imagine my mother’s anguish at having to send us away, not knowing if she would ever see us again, or if we would be hurt, starved, tortured or killed. But she knew that all of us would not survive if we stayed together, so she made the heart-wrenching choice to separate us. Without that decision, none of us would have likely survived.”

By the age of seven, Ung had been recruited to train as a child soldier
For 17 months, Loung was forced to learn how to fight Vietnamese soldiers. In November 1978, she fled in the middle of the night, returning to Ro Leap to find her mother and youngest sister, only to hear they were abducted by the Khmer Rouge and were never heard from again. In 1979, the remaining Ung family members were reunited. A year later, Loung’s oldest brother Meng, now a newlywed, had finally received sponsorship to come to the United States for himself, his wife, and Loung. Their siblings remained in Cambodia. Looking back on those traumatic five years, Ung says, “Looking back, I now see how my father’s love and my mother’s courage gave me the hope and strength to survive. My mother was the strongest person I’ll ever know and my father—perhaps—the most loving. Whenever there was a time I felt like giving up, I thought of them and fought to live so I could honor their life. Looking back, I now see how my father’s love and my mother’s courage gave me the hope and strength to survive.”

In 1979, the remaining Ung family members were reunited. A year later, Loung’s oldest brother Meng, now a newlywed, had finally received sponsorship to come to the United States for himself, his wife, and Loung. Their siblings remained in Cambodia. Looking back on those traumatic five years, Ung says, “Looking back, I now see how my father’s love and my mother’s courage gave me the hope and strength to survive. My mother was the strongest person I’ll ever know and my father—perhaps—the most loving. Whenever there was a time I felt like giving up, I thought of them and fought to live so I could honor their life. Looking back, I now see how my father’s love and my mother’s courage gave me the hope and strength to survive.”

A year later, Loung’s oldest brother Meng, now a newlywed, had finally received sponsorship to come to the United States for himself, his wife, and Loung. Their siblings remained in Cambodia. Looking back on those traumatic five years, Ung says, “My mother was the strongest person I’ll ever know and my father, perhaps, the most loving. Whenever there was a time I felt like giving up, I thought of them and fought to live so I could honor their life. Looking back, I now see how my father’s love and my mother’s courage gave me the hope and strength to survive.”

Loung Ung at a refugee camp in Thailand in 1980
Courtesy Netflix

The Ungs arrived in Essex Junction, Vermont in June of 1980
“I arrived as a refugee to Vermont in June of 1980 not knowing anything about my new home or my country,” she says. “I was 10 years old, didn’t speak English, and I was constantly hungry and always cold. At the refugee camp in Thailand, the refugee workers tried to show us what life was like in America by screening American movies. In the movies I saw, America was a large, noisy city filled with tall buildings, big roads, large cars, and crowded with people. These movies looked nothing like Vermont. I did very much learn to love Vermont, it was a great place to heal.”

In 2000, she published her searing memoir, First They Killed My Father
“As a child, I felt I did not have a voice and as a result, I suffered the genocide in silence,” she says. “First They Killed My Father was born out of my desire to reclaim my voice and use it to tell the world of what happened in the genocide and what it took for my family and millions of other families just like ours to survive the war. In writing it, I also wanted the world to know that love, beauty, courage, sacrifice, and the grace of family and humanity exist in our world even in the harshest of times. Lastly, as a daughter, I wanted my parents’ grandchildren and great grandchildren to know them not only as victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide, but as people who were spiritual, strong, and full of life, love, and light.”

Angelina Jolie and Loung Ung in Cambodia in 2001
Courtesy Netflix

One particular fan —Angelina Jolie — became a lifelong friend
“Angie and I met in 2001 and have been friends since,” she says. “She had just finished filming Tomb Raider in Cambodia, and my book had just been released, so our paths of mutual interests in Cambodia and humanitarian issues crossed. Through the years, we have kept in touch and would see each other whenever our travels or lives could intersect. As a woman, I admire in her the same traits I admire in all my friends — her generosity, compassion, and intelligence. As a friend, I love that she is adventurous, a fun conversationalist, and a very loving and hands-on mom.”

She gave Jolie her blessing to adapt her memoir into a film
“The entire process was humbling,” says Ung. “It meant so much to me, and I think, to the country, to make the film in Cambodia, with a Khmer cast and in Khmer (Cambodian language). So many people on set had never spoken about their history and this gave them the opportunity to open up and share.” After the February premiere, she says, “as we screened for thousands more across the country, Angie and I met with survivors, and from those conversations, I could tell that this film helped open up a dialogue.”

After the February premiere, she says, “As we screened for thousands more across the country, Angie and I met with survivors, and from those conversations, I could tell that this film helped open up a dialogue.”

Srey Moch Sareum and Loung Ung on the set of First They Killed My Father
Courtesy Netflix/Mark Preimer

Ung also got to know the young actress who plays her in the film, Srey Moch Sareum. “I was on set nearly every day for the shooting of the film in Cambodia, so I would spend much time with Srey Moch, her mom, sister, and the other cast kids, crew, and their families,” she says of Sareum. “And every weekend, Angie, myself and her children would meet up with Srey Moch, the other cast children and their parents for fun days at the pool, museum visits and ice-cream outings. Pretty much from day one, I became ‘Auntie’ Loung to the kids and their parents. Srey Moch is bright, playful, and clever, and has a depth of intelligence and imagination that allowed her natural talent to shine through.”

And how did the young star do? “Srey Moch did a phenomenal job!” she says. “I loved seeing how much she grew and progressed in her acting skills in a few short months. Srey Moch and the other cast children really enjoyed acting, and some would like to continue. I think Srey Moch would like to direct like Angie. But for now, they are focused on school.”