The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, April 27, 2003

Chilling account of the killing fields of Cambodia
Himmat Singh Gill

First They Killed My Father
by Loung Ung. Penguin Books. Pages 222. Rs 295.

First They Killed My FatherPUBLISHED as part of the Editor’s Choice series — a hand-picked selection by Penguin of the best contemporary books around the world — this autobiography by a Cambodian girl who had to flee Phnom Penh to escape the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1975, is undoubtedly one of the most chilling eyewitness accounts that I have read in a long time. Loung’s story needs no props or heady blurbs. The earthiness, simplicity and stark reality of life captured in these pages as Loung escapes Cambodia to go to Vietnam, and then with the boat people to Thailand, paints vividly one of the worst genocides of our times.

This is the story of a five-year-old girl who had to run for her life along with her father and mother and other siblings from the country’s capital, when the Khmer Rouge, the dreaded Communists, came hunting for their countrymen, after Pol Pot’s men had taken over this far eastern kingdom from Lon Nol. In four years the Khmer killed more than two million Cambodians through starvation, executions and forced labour. This was nearly a fourth of the country’s total population. The few who survived those bloody days died of disease, and only those who fought it out till the very end survived by sheer luck and chance, and of course the offensive mounted by neighbouring Vietnam, whose own borders had come under attack at the hands of Pot’s cruel bands. Actually Loung’s story could be the story of any Cambodian was in the country at that time. It is, therefore, more than just a personal account and chronicles the history of a luckless land.


When starvation threatened, the family ate anything. "Rats, turtles and snakes caught in our traps are not wasted as we cook and eat their brains, tails, hides and blood. When no animals are caught, we roam the fields for grasshoppers, beetles, and crickets." When two men in black come to take away Loung’s father Ung for execution, (having discovered that he had worked for the earlier government in Phnom Penh), all he says to his daughter before leaving is, "My beautiful girl, I have to go away with these two men for a while". Somewhere outside the village, they smash his head in with a heavy hammer. Loung recalls her father’s last moments, "Pa prays silently for the gods to take care of us. He focuses his mind on us, bringing up our faces one by one. He wants our faces to be the last things he sees as he leaves the earth". And as a child soldier in a camp for orphaned girls, she is compelled to shout slogans for the army that has killed her family members, "Angkar! Angkar! Angkar!" and agree with Met Bong, the camp supervisor that, "Angkar is all powerful! Angkar is the saviour and liberator of the Khmer people". These vivid images are alive in my memory even now as I put down this chilling autobiography, having read it almost at one go. There is no sugar-coating in this (now grown up) lady’s harrowing account that tells the story of human suffering and unparalleled resilience which triumphs over evil in the end. The realism is stark, as also is the hatred Loung feels for the Khmer: "Rising above the surface again, I feel the weeks’ mud dissolve and slide off my skin, my nails, the creases in my neck and toes. The water washes away the dirt, but it will never put out the fire of my hate for the Khmer Rouge".

The epilogue narrates how Loung (after having moved to the United States, leaving half her family members behind in native Cambodia), one day returns to a family reunion in her ancestral home. In dressing up in loose-fitting black trousers, she makes a terrible mistake. Her trousers remind her family of the Khmer Rouge who dressed in black. "My family and I reacted awkwardly to each other and they kept their many warm arms at their sides." Loung is now settled in America, but the bloody killing fields of Cambodia still haunt her mind.

Whenever people start killing each other because of ideological differences (the Khmer versus the monarchy or a dictatorship), it is always the middle class (like Loung Ung’s family) that suffers the most. Books like this one help preserve civilisation and sanity.

Take my word and buy this book. It is a bestseller all the way.