At times all of the mass murder and genocide across the globe can be numbing. You know it is happening and you see the awful photos, but there is just so much of it that it can seem remote and, God forbid, routine. Well, Loung Ung’s 2000 memoir of her childhood under the Khmer Rouge brings it home. First They Killed My Father – A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, tells a harrowing tale of exile, murder and overwhelming hunger as seen through the eyes of a privileged middle class five year old.
This child knows what she had and has absolutely no idea why she has been abruptly pulled from her comfortable life in Phnom Penh and, together with her family, cast into a hostile rural environment. Ung survives, but as the title of her book suggests, not all of her family was so lucky. The mindless beatings and killings all occur in a numbing environment of hunger and fear. No one trusts anyone; the author and her siblings are told they must hide their Chinese ancestry and middle class roots. It is actually pretty amazing that the kids were able to follow these life-saving directions. They showed a lot of discipline and seemed to have entered into survival mode.
Fortunately, Ung managed to get out. After tough times in a Thai refugee camp, she immigrated to the United States with one of her brothers. She went on to an American high school and college and ended up writing at least two books and working with the Campaign for a Landmine Free World.
I Googled Ung to see what she has been up to since writing this book and learned that she has prompted some controversy within the Cambodian community. In particular, some have questioned whether Ung could have called the details of her childhood trauma so specifically, given that she was so young, only five years old, when the nightmare began. Given that she wasn’t in a position to write it all down, it seems entirely plausible that her youth and the passage of time may have affected some of the specifics of her recollections. Of course the passage of time affects the recollections of many of us.
Such controversies do not blunt the impact of this book. Ung’s story hits you right in the face and breaks your heart. This is what genocide felt like to a young child. She may not have focused on the politics behind the Khmer Rouge’s absurd cruelty and meglomania, but she saw the lunacy behind the terror. People turned on each other with unimaginable viciousness, and mass murder and loss were the result. At some level the politics really didn’t matter.