Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 19, 2018

First They Killed My Father, by Loung Ung

I talked about this book with The Spouse this morning over breakfast.

From the windows of the bus, Saigon is a prosperous and bustling city.  The streets are crowded with men and women in straw cone-shaped hats.  The women are wearing red lipstick and colourful snug-fitting long dresses that split at the side over loose flowing pants.  In the streets they talk openly to one another and laugh without covering their mouths.  They do not avert their eyes nor do they glance from one side to the other.  Their shoulders are not slumped and their arms not held close to their sides.  Taking long, casual strides, they walk without fear as we did in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge.  On every block there are stores displaying wristwatches with flowered bands, black radios blasting Vietnamese songs, televisions projecting hand puppets talking to happy young children, and red traditional dresses on headless mannequins.  The streets are crowded with many more bicycles, motorcycles, and compact cars than in Phnom Penh.  The food stalls and carts look bigger, cleaner and are painted in brighter colours than what we had in Cambodia.  As in Phnom Penh, people sit in alleys and side streets slurping noodle soups, biting into crispy fried spring rolls and egg rolls wrapped in lettuce.  I only wish that someday Phnom Penh will he as happy and rich as Saigon.  (p.220-1)

What a difference perspective makes!  This description of Saigon in 1979 jars with Western perceptions of it as a bleak and brutal place from which Vietnamese fled on rickety boats to freedom from the Communist regime which had prevailed in 1975 with the Fall of Saigon.  But the refugee child looking at these wonders has been brutalised herself since the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and embarked on their genocidal concept of Year Zero under Pol Pot.  From the age of five, she has been beaten and starved, forced to work long hours, and deprived of everything that a childhood should mean: no friends, no education, no toys or games, and almost no family.  She survives through her own iron will and her memories of her father’s love and belief in her.  And luck too, it seems to me, though ‘luck’ seems like the wrong word to use.

Loung Ung’s memoir, First They Killed My Father tells the story of how her family was, along with the rest of the population of Phnom Penh, marched into the countryside and forced to work as labourers in a ruthlessly agrarian economy where everything western was believed by the Khmer Rouge regime to be corrupt and monstrous.  Her father was eventually revealed to the soldiers as a former government employee and murdered, and tragically, just two weeks before the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, her mother and little sister Geak were murdered too.

This is the author’s note at the beginning of the book:

From 1975 to 1978 – through execution, starvation, disease and forced labour – the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians, almost a fourth 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.

Unless you could conceal it, it would have been your fate to die because you are reading.  Anyone who could read was murdered, and the wearing of glasses was enough to identify the victims.  As a very small child of five, Loung was taught to keep quiet about her former life, where she was learning to be trilingual – in Khmer, French and Chinese.  As you can see from the excerpt above, it became a habit to repress all emotion, and to adopt body language that does not draw attention.  It didn’t save her older sister Keav who like her brothers was forced to leave the family and work elsewhere, where she eventually sickened and died of dysentery because there was no medical care.

From her new home in America, Loung tells this bleak story from a child’s perspective, in the present tense.   The tone is lightened by her memories of home, family and love, but she writes often of the hatred that she nurtured for almost everyone she knew.  Even as a child she understood that there was a hierarchy in this so-called classless society: there were the soldiers and administrators of the regime who were privileged, especially with what mattered most, food.  (The absurd policies of the regime plunged Cambodia into famine, exacerbated by drought). Then there were the original peasantry, the ‘base-people’ who belonged in the countryside and were skilled at survival there.  At the bottom of the hierarchy were the people evacuated from Phnom Penh, unskilled in farming and a burden on the local economy.  Any one of these people could betray her as a person from the city and not the orphan she claimed to be, report her for not working hard enough or for stealing food.  The only people she could trust were her family, and when her mother sent her away for her own safety, her only consolation was her sister Chou, older than she was, but more compliant and with less initiative.  Loung as an adult is still surprised that Chou managed to survive too.

I taught refugee Cambodian children during my years at Springvale West Primary School.  That was ten years after these events but they had been born in refugee camps while their parents waited many years for resettlement.  These children had been taught to be compliant too, and their parents were still deeply traumatised.  We were a kinder nation, then, and there were no detention centres.

Having read this heartbreaking memoir just after Philippe Sands’  East West Street about the development of the international laws of crimes against humanity and genocide, I turned to Wikipedia to remind myself about the fate of Pol Pot. In 1998, more than 20 years after the events of his book, the remnants of the Khmer Rouge finally agreed to hand him over to an international tribunal.  In a coincidence reminiscent of the fate of some of the Nazis, he died, allegedly of natural causes, that same night.  Sometimes, the wheels of justice move much too slowly…

Author: Loung Ung
Title: First They Killed My Father
Publisher: Harper Perennial (Harper Collins) 2006 (who ought to be ashamed of themselves for the sloppy proofreading of a book that’s gone into multiple editions)
ISBN: 9780060856267
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (P.S.)

 


Responses

  1. Just reading your review left me in tears, Lisa. I’m not sure how readers will cope with ‘First they Killed my Father’ but cope we must. If only those who could be responsible for returning us to the ‘kinder nation’ of which you write would read it too.

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    • I confess that when this book was first released and I read reviews of it, I felt I could not read it, not then when I had so recently met men and women from Cambodia who had survived it. And reading it this week, I could not help but remember our tourist guide in Cambodia, who was a baby during the period. Bun was a lovely man, gentle and thoughtful, and it was chilling to read about what he and his family must also have been through, though he said very little about it when he told us ‘his story’, preferring to talk in the abstract about it as an historical event. (See https://hillfamilysoutherndivision.wordpress.com/2007/12/08/lake-ton-le-sap-saturday-october-6th-2007/).

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  2. Perhaps what we might do is stop the bombing of Cambodia – a war crime if ever there was one – the wars against America’s ’ememies’ – Vietnam, Iraq, Nicaragua and on and on – that set up these refugee situations in the first place.

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    • I think there have been attempts to bring these matters to account but they have not succeeded…
      But yes, if we had a more peaceful, equitable world there would be no refugee crisis. Because most people would much rather stay in their own country than leave it….

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  3. This is a great review, Lisa. I read this book about 8 years ago while travelling through Cambodia. I visited the awful killing fields and the genocide museum and it has stayed with me ever since.
    Have you seen the movie? Just last week i came across it on netflix. It’s directed by Angelina Jolie (and the author) and is very well done. Not easy to watch, but a very compelling movie.
    It’s sickening that this all took place in our very recent history.

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    • Hi Lauren, I can remember seeing the news reports about it, and feeling a sickening sense of disbelief about it.
      Our guide in Cambodia told us that Pol Pot drew on the worst of three ideologies: Stalinism meant killing dissidents; Maoism meant disastrous agrarian ‘reform’; and French anti-colonialism meant isolation from the rest of the world. A perfect storm…

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