Country Focus: Cambodia (Kampuchea in Khmer)
First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers
Originally published: HarperCollins, 2000.
My edition: Harper Perennial, 2001.
Acclaim: National Bestseller
To make a long story short: When the Khmer Rouge army entered Phnom Penh in 1975, five-year-old Loung Ung, her parents, three brothers and three sisters were forced to flee their home in the capital city. The Ungs, along with thousands of other refugees, were trucked to rural villages run by the Khmer Rouge. There, they were forced to work twelve hour days in the fields, listen to communist propaganda at night, and forbidden to socialize with others. Out of fear for their lives, the family separated. As she and her loved ones succumbed to starvation and violence, fiesty Loung channeled her hatred and fear into a palpable strength that carried her through the next five years, until the Vietnamese defeated the Khmer Rouge and she escaped to America.
My opinion: The book’s title is about as subtle as a People Magazine headline, so much so that I almost left it on the shelf. It was Ung’s Author’s Note – “if you had been living in Cambodia during this period, this would be your story too” – that convinced me to give her memoir a chance (I’m just two years younger than Ung).
I learned that during the years 1975-1980, while I was riding my tricycle and attending elementary school, Ung was lying about her background (the Khmer Rouge would have killed her family if they found out that Ung’s father had worked for the opposition government), rubbing dirt on her skin to darken it (the Khmer Rouge would have killed her if they had suspected she was not pure Cambodian – Ung’s mother was Chinese and her father was part Chinese, part Cambodian), and training to kill the Vietnamese.
Ung’s horrifying and heartbreaking story is filled with details that only a survivor could relate, and includes enough historical context to help an uninformed reader (like me) make sense of her situation.
The armchair travel experience: Ung was my guide to Pol Pot’s Cambodia. The hellish journey starts in Phnom Penh, with quick stops at a couple of Khmer Rouge-run villages, a long stretch in a labor camp, then a stint at a child soldier training camp, time in a refugee camp, and then the tour finishes up at Thailand’s Bangkok airport.
In my book (or what Cambodia means to me and maybe you, too)
Wat an incredible structure
The sprawling temple complex of Angkor Wat (203 acres surrounded by a 4 mile moat) is the world’s largest religious monument and one of my favorite pieces of architecture. Angkor Wat, which means “city temple” was built using roughly the same amount of sandstone as Khafre’s pyramid in Egypt (over 5 million tons).
Constructed in the 12th century, Angkor Wat’s five towers represent the five peaks of Mount Meru, home of the Hindu gods. Almost all of the temple’s surfaces are intricately carved with scenes from Hindu epic literature.
In the late 13th century, the new ruler changed the official religion of the Khmer empire from Hinduism to Theravada Buddhism. He continued to use Angkor War for religious purposes and added statues of the Buddha – a recycling of architecture known as palimpsest.
Field of nightmares
When I was twelve, I was watching the Academy Awards and saw a scene from The Killing Fields (the movie won three Oscars that night). That short clip stuck with me for years – it portrayed Cambodian journalist Dith Pran stumbling into the bone-laden “killing fields.” I knew nothing of Cambodian history, but ever afterward I associated Cambodia with genocide.
The real Dith Pran emigrated to New York and spoke out about the genocide that had occurred in his country:
“I am a one-person crusade. I must speak for those who did not survive and for those who still suffer… Like one of my heroes, Elie Wiesel, who alerts the world to the horrors of the Jewish holocaust, I try to awaken the world to the holocaust of Cambodia, for all tragedies have universal implications.”
When bully Pol Pot had the bully pulpit
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge are names that I’ve recognized for most of my life but have lacked supporting information on, save that they were evil. First They Killled My Father explained quite a bit. Here’s some history haiku to keep it simple:
Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge
defeated the government
They took Phnom Pehn.
“Year Zero,” Pol Pot announced,
and began to purge.
None of it had a place now.
were singled out and murdered,
bodies left in fields.
were taken to labor camps
where they faced starvation.
Two million were killed
Before the Vietnamese
Defeated Pol Pot.