Image: Angkor Wat, Cambodia, as seen from the west entrance
Source: Manfred Werner, Wikimedia Commons
On the 5th of February, members of the STEAR book club gathered to discuss First they killed my father: A daughter of Cambodia remembers by Loung Ung. In this work, the author recounts her youth in Cambodia, which appears blissful at first but quickly turns into a story of violence and bloodshed. When the Khmer Rouge win the civil war in 1975 under the leadership of Pol Pot, massive killings ensue. Over two million people are estimated to have been massacred at the end of the 1970s. In an attempt to restore Cambodia to its so-called former glory and establish a communist state, the regime targets ethnic minorities and people seen as intellectuals. Loung’s father worked for the previous Lon Nol government, and so she and her middle-class family are forced to flee. She is just five years old at the time. The Ung family is even more at risk because they are of foreign, Chinese descent. The book follows their desperate search for sanctuary. But, as they quickly realize, in communist Cambodia, there is no place to hide.
This book provided us with a deeper understanding of the Cambodian genocide, a piece of history previously unknown to most of us. Written from a child’s point of view, the style is simple. Reading the story through the eyes of a child makes it all the more poignant. Loung frequently does not understand what is happening and turns to her father, mother, and five older siblings for answers. She has trouble understanding why the regime is unleashing terror on its own people. Reading the book, we asked ourselves a similar question: How could this have happened? People are starving, with the regime refusing to feed its people. Quickly, however, Loung learns to stop asking questions: “I do not care why or how the Angkar [the government] plans to restore Cambodia. All I know is the constant pain of hunger in my stomach.”
Throughout the book, Loung vividly describes her family’s suffering. Even though Loung first believes they will go back to Phnom Penh after a few days, she quickly realizes that she won’t return home anytime soon. She used to be a curious and mischievous child, but soon grows hateful and angry.
The experience of Loung, her family, and with them millions of Cambodians, raised profound questions about people’s readiness to inflict trauma on others. A survivor of communist violence, Loung carried with her the memories of a shattered childhood. These were left unprocessed, however. None of her surviving family members ever asked about what she had been through. Loung’s story reflects an important feature of Cambodian memory culture. After years of suffering, Cambodians preferred to look ahead, not back, and on the way, they often suppressed memories of the genocide.
Through her book, Loung Ung has broken the silence and now actively shares her story. Her account of the Cambodian genocide is a gripping tale of the unraveling of society under the strain of the bloody Pol Pot regime. It recounts the story of a remarkably resilient individual living through turbulent times. And we can only hope First they killed my father will be a step towards the healing of a nation.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.