In 1975, Loung Ung lived in privilege with her parents and six siblings in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. At the age of five, she already knew she was more fortunate than many of the other children she encountered on the busy streets of her city. Her father was a government official, so the family was well off and never had to worry about where they would get their next meal, or whether the children would be able to attend school.
Then in April 1975, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army invaded the city and forced everyone to flee; those who were unable to leave were killed. The Ung family was was forced to join hundreds of thousands of people traveling for days on foot, leaving behind everything they owned and not knowing if they would ever be allowed back. Since the Khmer Rouge were indiscriminately killing anyone associated with the former government, the entire family had to be careful of what they said at all times and move constantly to avoid attracting attention.
Though Loung was only five at the time, the horrors she describes are vivid and painful. Her youngest sibling was three at the time and the oldest was fourteen; with seven children, their parents struggled to keep the family safe and nourished. The family moved around to various camps; about two million Cambodians died from disease, starvation, or executions at the hands of the Khmer Rouge soldiers patrolling the area. To better protect the family, the parents decided it was best to separate and send all but the youngest child to work camps; this way, if their true identities were discovered, the entire family wouldn’t be murdered together.
I was completely blown away by Ung’s powerfully-written memoir. This dark chapter in Cambodian history is something I knew almost nothing about, and hearing a first-hand account was devastating. What really killed me was the thought of children experiencing all of this. Ung writes at length about all the murderous rage she felt, especially towards the end of her four-year ordeal: she’d lost family members, battled starvation, was almost raped, witnessed murder, and had lost the innocence of her childhood. She also talks a lot about her older brothers. The responsibility to help the family often fell on their shoulders, even though they weren’t much older than she was; she writes of them looking old, sad, and tired beyond their years, like wizened old men. It was so sad to think about, and even sadder to think that her story could be that of any of the millions of people whose lives were forever changed during those years.
This is not an easy book to read, but it’s a book that everyone should read. I do vaguely remember being taught something about Pol Pot when I was in school, but nothing to this extent, and certainly not in the form of a first-hand account. It’s a part of our world’s history that should not be forgotten.
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers was first released in 2000; it was most recently re-released in 2006 by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins. This book — as well as the other two follow-up memoirs Ung wrote — is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it.