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First They Killed My Father
by Loung Ung

First They Killed My Father
  • Cost: $23.00
  • Length: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Collins, 2000

Reviewed by Lori Siebenaller

Witness to Genocide

Loung Ung had just turned five when Khmer Rouge troops invaded her home city of Phnom Penh, forcing her family to flee their home and abandon their comfortable middle class lives. Ung's first book, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers details her experiences under the Khmer Rouge from shortly before their invasion of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975 through her departure from a refugee camp located in Thailand to the United States in February 1980.

Until 1970, Cambodia was ruled by a monarch, Prince Sihanouk. However, in 1970, he was overthrown by his top general, General Lon Nol in a military coup. For the next five years a civil war was fought between the democratic Lon Nol government and the communist Khmer Rouge.

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge defeated Lon Nol. Ung begins her story with an author's note, stating: "From 1975 to 1979 - through execution, starvation, disease, and forced labor - the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians, almost a fourth of the country's population. "

Ung's story paints a grim and powerful picture of what it was like to live under Khmer Rouge rule. It is written in a matter-of-fact style that is not overly emotional yet conveys the deep emotional distress that she experienced. Her story is particularly touching because it is told from the viewpoint of a child, who despite her age had remarkable insight and a powerful imagination and a strong desire to survive.

Ung is the second youngest of seven children and often feels misunderstood by everyone except her father, with whom she has a very close relationship that is evident throughout her story. Her mother feels that she is a troublesome child and worries that she will not grow up to be a proper lady and her siblings regard her as being "spoiled and a troublemaker," but her father tells her that she is really a "diamond in the rough. " Ung's father was originally a member of the Cambodian Royal Secret Service, under Prince Sihanouk and a major under the government of General Lon Nol. Because the Lon Nol was the government that the Khmer Rouge overthrew, the family was forced to hide their true identity during Khmer rule.

Ung and her family could no longer safely trust anyone. They were forced to hide not only their true identity, but also their education, and their former middle class life. When people asked, they were told that Ung's father worked as a packer in a shipping port and her mother sold old clothes in the market. Ung avoided talking to people she met for fear of what could happen. "To talk is to bring danger to the family," she says. "At five years old, I am beginning to know what loneliness feels like, silent and alone and suspecting that everyone wants to hurt me. " In addition to losing her trust and innocence during the Khmer rule, Ung also lost an older sister to illness and both of her parents and her younger sister to the violence of the Khmer soldiers.

Despite the fact that she was not there to witness the deaths of her parents and two sisters, she imagines what they might have been like. This seems to fuel her determination to survive and to make the Khmer Rouge pay for the wrong that has been done to her family. While she is being trained as a child soldier to fight against the Vietnamese, or Youns, her strong spirit and determination to avenge the deaths of her family members are quite evident. Of practicing on a dummy, Ung writes: "Hard and fast, I stab it, each time envisioning not the body of a Youn but that of Pol Pot. " Ung held Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, responsible for the loss of her family members.

Loung Ung came to the United Sates as a refugee in 1980. She was raised in Vermont by her oldest brother and his wife and now lives in Washington, D.C. Ung is presently the national spokesperson for the "Campaign for a Landmine Free World. " "As I tell people about genocide," she says," I get the opportunity to redeem myself. I've had the chance to do something that's worth my being alive. "