“First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung (published 2000) is a personal narrative of a female survivor of the genocide that took place in Cambodia in the 1970s. Loung Ung was only five years old when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh (April, 1975). She was one of seven children in a middle-class family who were forced to flee their homes. They became fugitives, denying their true identity and seeking refuge in the countryside. Her story is heart-wrenching, describing the horrendous scenes of starvation, rape, forced labour and family separation that characterised Pol Pot’s brand of revolution in the name of agrarian communism.
The proposer of the book had visited Cambodia in 2006 during a visit to SE Asia. Even then, some 30 years after the events described in the book, he thought the Cambodians were less happy than others in the region. It isn’t surprising, as 1.5 to 2.5 million people were killed, approaching a quarter of the population. We noted in passing that the book is timely: whilst we were reading the book the opening of the UN-backed genocide tribunal was announced, with the trial of senior members of the Pol Pot regime. Pol Pot himself died in 1998, and was never brought to trial. Also, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma’s National League for Democracy, was delivering the BBC’s Reith Lectures on the subject of securing freedom. Next week, the TV channel More4 is showing True Stories: Voices from the Killing Fields. It is an opportunity to reflect upon man’s inhumanity to man.
We all found the writing style to be simple and beguiling. There seems to have been a strong editorial hand; indeed, Loung acknowledges help from her teachers and publisher. Certainly, the book is highly readable. The photographs are poignant and an important part of the book. They show family members in better times, before or after the period 1975-1980. The cover photograph shows Loung on arrival at a refugee camp in Thailand in 1980, holding an identification board with her name and number. Although this marks the end of the ordeal, she has still to adjust to her new freedom, and to come to terms with the guilty feelings of being one of the survivors. That part of the story is resumed in another book After They Killed our Father which some members of our Club have already procured.
We questioned whether Loung could have remembered accurately the details she so eloquently describes. The book was written about 20 years after the events, when she had settled into a relatively normal life in the USA. Perhaps she didn’t recall all the distressing details, and perhaps some of the most harrowing personal events have been suppressed or redefined. She describes very well her deep hatred of her assailants, and especially of Pol Pot himself. Perhaps writing the book was a therapy, or perhaps she was motivated by a strong desire to tell the world what happened, in fact what it feels like. We see so many media images of starving children that we are no longer shocked, but we can never know the feelings of the victims until someone has the courage to write about it from personal experience, as Loung has now done so well.
We reflected on the cause of genocide and the motivation of its perpetrators. Was Pol Pot following the example of Mao Tse-tung? Presumably, yes; and there was an influence from the French Communist Party as well as the writings of Marx and Lenin. Pol Pot was trying to create a more equal society based on agrarian socialism. Ghandi himself had been an advocate of agrarian socialism but he would never have forced it upon his people. To some extent Pol Pot’s failed revolution was motivated by Cambodian nationalism: the Kymer Rouge leadership wanted to restore the Khmer Empire (the Empire flourished from the 9th to the 15th centuries) and hated the pale skinned Vietnamese and Chinese, even though they used Chinese weapons in exchange for rice.
Genocide is properly defined as the systematic extermination of an ethnic group. Here, those who were rounded up or abducted were both the pale-skinned Vietnamese and the educated classes including government employees. Loung’s family smeared their skin with soil to appear darker, as the mother was of Chinese origin.
The Book Group has tackled several horrendous stories in the five years of its existence. José Saramago’s Blindness springs to mind. They were novels, and Loung’s book is the real thing. In some respects, the real world is capable of greater horror than the novelist’s world. It has a stronger random element. Most of all, real lives are lost. And as one of our members pointed out, two souls are lost when a child soldier is ordered to execute someone by a blow to the head with a hammer.
What about the scale of the genocide? Hitler is believed to have killed 6.5 million, and Stalin may have killed more. The Turkish killed many Armenians, and who knows how many lives were lost in Rwanda. Facts and figures are frequently denied and the truth is unclear. Sheer numbers hide the human dimension; Loung’s story has to be repeated millions of times to represent the staggering enormity of the suffering.
On the last pages of the book, Ung describes how she settled into the USA, becoming ‘a normal American girl’ and then obtained a degree in political science before becoming a spokesperson for the Campaign for a Landmine-Free World. On the last page of the book, she travels to Cambodia for an awkward re-union with what is left of her family (she lost both parents, two sisters and many relatives). She realises that she now lives in a world apart.
It is a sad and distressing story, very well told, and an important testament to the individual suffering brought about by genocide. This story, though, has a more or less positive ending, in stark contrast to the tale of the many who died.