Strong family, horrific lives

First They Killed My Father
By Loung Ung

This book is a gripping tale about the experiences of a child who spent far too much of her childhood growing up under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. No human being, let alone a child, should have had to endure what somehow Loung managed to; this book is a testament to her amazing spirit.

And also to the spirit of the Cambodian people. As Loung writes in her author’s note: “Though these events constitute my experience, my story mirrors that of millions of Cambodians. If you had been living in Cambodia during this period, this would be your story, too.”

By the end of the book, you will be very glad that it isn’t.

When Loung Ung is just five-years-old the Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh, and herd the population out into the surrounding countryside. Loung and her mother, father and six brothers and sisters, who have lived a very middle-class existence in Phnom Penh, are also forced to flee.

Loung’s father was a Cambodian Royal Secret Service officer under Prince Sihanouk, and despite eventually moving into business, he was conscripted into the service of the Lon Nol government. The family must therefore be vigilant in keeping their middle-class past a secret.

While moving from village to village in the earlier days they are successful at least in this endeavour. But eventually, like so many other men, her father is taken away by soldiers, ostensibly to help fix an ox cart. He never returns.

The book documents the rest of the family’s efforts simply to survive. Loung’s brother Kim risks his life to scour bountiful fields and steal corn destined for the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge, or for China – but not for the stomachs of the Cambodian people. Loung’s mother eventually insists that her remaining children leave her hut and walk in different directions, pretending to be orphans when they find the next village or camp. She is afraid that soldiers will return to kill them all, as they have started to kill remaining survivors in other families. The regime fears that their anger could cause an uprising.

Loung first ends up in a camp for orphanages, and then one where children are trained as soldiers. She is here when the Vietnamese liberate Cambodia, but her battle is far from over. Loung, one of her brother’s and her sister-in-law risk death yet again to escape to Vietnam and then Thailand, where they are finally given passage to the US where they can begin to rebuild what’s left of their lives.

First They Killed My Father is not a literary materpiece – it’s foremost intention is to share with readers what happened under the regime in one of the provinces that was renowned for being the most harshly-run by the Khmer Rouge – but it is unputdownable and lyrical in a very unique way.

The style of writing is minimalist, and shocking in its almost dispassionate descriptions of unspeakable events. Just one example can be given when Loung is huddling next to her friend during Khmer Rouge bombing of the village they are staying in following the Vietnamese liberation.

A rocket hits their shelter: “I reach for Pithy’s arm, then jerk my hand back as my palm touches something wet and sticky. My stomach churns. I turn to see Pithy lying facedown on the ground, quiet and motionless. The top of her skull is caved in. A pool of blood slowly seeps into the dirt around her head.” A few more sentences and Pithy is hardly mentioned again. There is plenty of other horror to take her place.

This work could be the very welcome beginning of more personal works about survivors’ experiences under the regime. To date, most of the recommended texts for those interested in the history of the Khmer Rouge and the people who suffered under them have been academic and scholarly in nature. This book is an important addition to that body of work in that it is written by a survivor.

Loung’s narrative is made all the more powerful not only by the fact that it is a painfully true story, but that it recalls in great detail what a five-year-old child suffered at the hands of a bloodthirsty, ideologically- fanatical regime.

It is timely, given the current debate about whether a war crimes tribunal should be held in Cambodia, although the author doesn’t give any opinions on modern day Cambodian politics.

And it will be timeless by virtue of the fact that there will always wars, both civil and international, in far flung and not-so-far-flung places across the globe – and it will always be defenceless, innocent children who suffer immeasurably. This book gives them a voice.

Make sure you listen.

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