- Series: P.S.
- Paperback: 238 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial (April 4, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0060856262
- ISBN-13: 978-0060856267
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 2,250 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,826 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (P.S.) Paperback – April 4, 2006
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From the Back Cover
One of seven children of a high-ranking government official, Loung Ung lived a privileged life in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh until the age of five. Then, in April 1975, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army stormed into the city, forcing Ung's family to flee and, eventually, to disperse. Loung was trained as a child soldier in a work camp for orphans, her siblings were sent to labor camps, and those who survived the horrors would not be reunited until the Khmer Rouge was destroyed.
Harrowing yet hopeful, Loung's powerful story is an unforgettable account of a family shaken and shattered, yet miraculously sustained by courage and love in the face of unspeakable brutality.
About the Author
Loung Ung was the National Spokesperson for the “Campaign for a Landmine Free World,” a program of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for co-founding the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Ung lectures extensively, appears regularly in the media, and has made more than thirty trips back to Cambodia. She is also the author of Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind and LuLu in the Sky.
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Although this book may give the impression of a very limited insight the Cambodian genocide as it was written in a child’s perspective, this book definitely did not live up to that impression. It was able to make me question, think critically and feel several different emotions within just a couple hundred pages.
I loved and still love this book so much that I recommended it to practically everyone I know. It supports my stance on war and is one of the most insightful books I’ve read up to date. Loved it and would most likely read it again.
Loung Ung's autobiography is a moving memorial to all the lives lost in that deranged quest for Utopia. In the eyes of the Angkar (the Khmer Rouge "organization"), liquidating the members of the old regime is but a necessary prelude to building a society of true believers. And if the Angkar believes that each hectare can yield 3 tons of rice (even though the best yield before the war was only 1 ton/hectare), then it must be achievable if everybody just works hard enough. The starry-eyed school-teachers of yesteryear who dreamed of an agrarian paradise had become totally out of touch. And with the absolute power they wielded, nobody was about to tell them otherwise. The result was mass famine as local cadres starved the people to turn in their production quota. As millions perished, the top leadership witch-hunted for "saboteurs" and berated their subjects for lack of revolutionary fervor.
Ung's book is full of vivid descriptions and keen observations that bring the vicissitudes of that era poignantly to life. Many passages are naturally cinematic. These include:
- Her idyllic family life in pre-KR Phnom Penh. The author was young, but her memory is sharp. Her colourful description of early 1970's Phnom Penh with its many exotic (to an American audience) sights, sounds, and colors is an adventure in itself;
- The arrival of the KR in Phnom Penh. A moment of high historical drama, but perhaps the author was too young to remember the details. This is where Chanrithy Him's dramatic account offers some truly memorable moments;
- Getting through the KR check points on the way out of Phnom Penh, as KR soldiers systematically rounded up all former members of the old regime. Most would be executed within days;
- A widow who took refuge with the author's family, tenderly talking to the baby that she carried with her everywhere, refusing to accept that he was already dead; (p.86)
- The ritual brainwashing of children at a child labor camp, with the clapping, the chanting of "Angkar!", the endless repetition of propaganda;
- Loung's savage attack against one of her tormentors, a bully in the children's labour camp who despised her because of her light skin. Even as a 7-year old she dreamed of the day when she'd have the power to come back to look for the bullies and "beat them until she was tired". She vowed never to forget. Her sweet-natured sister couldn't understand why she wanted to retain such horrible memories. But as Loung explained, she needed the anger, the thoughts of retribution, to fill the bottomless sadness in her soul.
I've always said that anger, or at least righteous indignation, is a much under-rated emotion. It needs to be controlled. It needs to be properly-channeled. But it's the juice that drives much social progress.
Finally, a few observations about the author's family background. A few readers took offense at the author's perceived lack of sensitivity. Perhaps she took too much pride in her family's light skin, high status, and economic prosperity. Reading her account of her family's encounter with the villagers in the KR base areas, it's quite evident there was much class resentment and perhaps plain-old jealousy on the part of the country folk. Even to this day many villagers in the old KR base areas seem to recall that era wistfully - Pol Pot's cremation site seems to have become something of a shrine. No doubt the villagers didn't enjoy the regimentation, but it was a topsy-turvy time when poor people like themselves could feel superior to the city folk who probably looked down on them. Not that the Khmer Rouge cadres themselves were particularly holy, of course. Plenty were mere opportunists. The Khmer Rouge village chief who lorded over the "new people" ate better, dressed better, and was apparently not above trading extra food for gold at exorbitant prices. (Ironically his corruption probably saved some lives, because life definitely got a lot harder after Angkar tightened things up and sent more soldiers into the villages.) As for Pol Pot, the young Loung Ung knew almost nothing about him, except that he was "fat" in a country of living skeletons.
A postscript: Those readers who are interested in how Loung and her siblings fared after the war may be interested in reading her second book, Lucky Child. While some readers may find the events in her later life less dramatic, I found it equally fascinating to read about her endeavors to come to terms with her past while trying to make a new life for herself in America. Like many children from similar backgrounds, she went through a phase when she attempted to cut all ties with her past (to the point of deliberately avoiding contact with her siblings) and plunged headlong into mainstream American youth culture. As she got older, she discovered that she could only conquer the ghosts of her past by embracing her roots, and to rise above her personal losses (and petty personal vengeance) by making them her life-long cause. While my own life experiences were nowhere nearly as dramatic as Luong's, there are enough similarities that what she wrote rang true to me and resonated. Well worth a read.
The book takes you through executions, starvation, disease, forced labour camps, and systematically killing of human beings for no other reason than they had an education. The description of starvation, stomach ache, extreme exhaustion, diarrhea and aching joints will leave you with a deeper understanding of the horrific situation these people experienced.
I have now started the Lucky Child ... I can't wait to see how see adapts to living in Vermont ... and to see her healing process.