Non-fiction – memoir; Kindle edition; Mainstream Digital; 276 pages; 2016.
Last month I visited Cambodia for a week. It was a wonderfully educational — and emotionally challenging — experience. (If you follow me on Instagram you might have seen my photographs.)
I saw many things I’m still internally “processing”, not least a visit to the Killing Fields, which was the execution grounds for the ruling Khmer Rouge (1975-79), and Tuol Sleng Prison Museum, a former school that served as a Khmer Rouge torture centre. (I visited Auschwitz in 1998 and this visit was on a par emotion-wise: it really was shocking to see evidence of man’s inhumanity to man — yet again.)
Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father is a moving and disturbing memoir about that turbulent and deadly period in Cambodian history. It was originally published in 2000 and adapted into a movie that was produced and directed by Angelina Jolie in 2017. I have not seen the film.
A childhood under Communist rule
Loung Ung was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power. This makes her the same age as me, but our childhoods couldn’t have been more different.
From 1975 to 1979 – through execution, starvation, disease, and forced labour – the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians, almost a quarter of the country’s population. This is a story of survival: my own and my family’s. 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.
Under communist rule markets, schools and universities were abolished, and money, watches, clocks, eight-track players, televisions, cars — in fact anything imported — were banned. Each rural village had a “boss” who acted as the Khmer Rouge’s eyes and ears, but often soldiers would patrol farmland to ensure the work was being carried out correctly. Food, of which there was very little, was strictly controlled.
Loung’s memoir reveals how her carefree childhood, as one of seven children of a high-ranking government official and a middle-class Chinese-born mother, in urban Phnom Penh changed dramatically when Pol Pot came to power in 1975. Because her family worked for the government and her mother was ethnic, they were on Khmer Rouge’s hitlist. The family fled to the countryside, where they reinvented themselves as rural peasants in order to survive.
They got away with it for a short while. Then, one day a soldier appeared on their doorstep, asking Loung’s father to help him fix a broken down vehicle, and he was never seen again. In the weeks and months that followed, Loung’s family was split up: her siblings went to various labour camps; Loung trained as a child soldier; and her mother and younger sister remained in the village trying to get by as best they could.
A courageous struggle for survival
While the story is largely told through the eyes of a young child, naive and fearless, it manages to capture the confusion, cruelty and oppressive nature of a particular time in history.
The horrendous events that Loung and her family went through for more than three years were often barbaric and heart-rending. But somehow, through a series of coincidences and good fortune, they managed to survive the worst of it, but even when the country was liberated by Vietnam in 1979 they still had to flee for their lives and try to re-establish contact with one another. Their tale was far from over. (Apparently this struggle to be reunited is told in a follow-up memoir, After They Killed Our Father: A Refugee from the Killing Fields Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind, which I have not read — yet.)
First They Killed My Father is a truly emotional read, all the more so when I compared my childhood, happy and carefree in Australia, with that of the author’s. It’s a powerful and shocking story and one that will stay with me for a long time.
If you don’t know anything (or very little) about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, this memoir is a very good place to start. All the tour guides and officials I met and spoke with in Cambodia always recommended this book to read (I made a habit to ask for reading suggestions; Cambodia does not have much of a written literary tradition) and all were immensely proud of the Angelina Jolie film because it drew attention to their history, which has largely been ignored by the West.
This is my 5th book for #TBR40. I bought it late last year when I was planning my trip to Cambodia and wanted to learn more about the country before I arrived. I actually read it on the day I left Cambodia — an exhausting day involving two internal flights — and it meant all the more to me having visited many of the places mentioned in the book.