A childhood lost to the killing fields

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First they killed my father

The Age August 25, 2003

A childhood lost to the killing fields

Before she was nine, the Khmer Rouge wrecked Loung Ung's life.

Loung Ung's disturbing and illuminating autobiography, First They Killed My Father, like her survival instinct and sense of self-preservation, is nourished by the memory of her father. Loung's memories of his supportive presence sustain her through the horrendous ordeals of displacement, forced labour, inhuman conditions, starvation and the elimination of loved family members.

The Khmer Rouge revolutionary army, under the leadership of the notorious Pol Pot, was driven by the anti-modern, anti-Western ideal of a restructured ``classless agrarian society''. But in the process of enforcing this ``ideal'' with pragmatism and extreme violence, the regime had a genocidal impact on the Cambodian people between 1975 and 1979.

Loung's personal story contributes an intimate face to the generalised, systematic horror of the Cambodian ``killing fields''. It may be compared with Primo Levi's experience of the Holocaust in If This is a Man and Alexander Solzhenitsyn's writing about the Russian Gulag in A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Each of these books raises explicit issues about the nature of systematic, ideologically driven political violence and its costs, especially at the level of human suffering.

First They Killed My Father brings into stark focus the physical and emotional realities of such suffering, and gives rise to crucial questions about political ideas divorced from their actual human context, and especially about pragmatism - about ``the ends justifying the means'' - forever a troubling proposition.

Loung refers to her father's career as a police commissioner and his time in the Lon Nol government, which overthrew Prince Sihanouk and instigated Cambodian democracy. But gradually it came to be regarded as corrupt and too closely identified with the West, feeding the resistance of the revolutionary, indigenous Khmer movement.

The story does not dwell on political details; instead it is the practical impact and reality of family dislocation and suffering that underpins the writer's purpose. However, it is the family's ``sheltered middle-class life'' in the face of the classless revolutionary ``ideal'' and her father's former work that made him a marked man after the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Phen in April 1975.

One of the most shocking aspects of the family story is that Loung's experience takes place between the ages of five and nine, and bears no connection to what most readers would consider a normal childhood. She suffers a total loss of the innocence generally associated with childhood.

A vivid picture of a middle-class life in Phnom Penh is presented in the early stages of the book, a life that was not enjoyed by large numbers of poorer people and peasants living on and beyond the fringes of the city. Throughout the recounting of her dreadful ordeals and with hindsight and a tone of gentle awareness, Loung regularly refers to the conditions she once took for granted. The contrast between the happy, secure, comfortable life in the city and the trials across the four years of constant movement, hard labour and the quest to find enough food to survive provides a clear reference and anchor in the narrative.

From the outset, the first-person, present-tense narrative sets up Loung in a quietly self-reflective way.

As a young child she is wilful, rebellious, ``unlady-like'' and rather self-centred, in contrast to her more demure sisters, Keav and Chou. But she is also a favourite of her revered father and regarded by him as clever and strong, qualities that will help her survive the terrors ahead.

The main part of the narrative is the description of the years between the fall of Phnom Phen and the liberation by the Vietnamese army in 1979.

The family, along with tens of thousands of others, is forced out of Phnom Phen during the takeover and must leave behind all the middle-class luxuries and securities. At various intervals, jewellery is traded for food and favours, and valued personal items are appropriated or destroyed.

The long trek into rural areas is physically taxing for adults, let alone children, and Loung gradually comes to realise that the life she has known is over, not temporarily suspended, as the Khmer Rouge first indicate.

Conditions move from bad, to worse, to unimaginable, as the family cannot stay with relatives or remain long in one place for fear of reprisal.

Many groups, including professionals and the educated, are punished, and the whole population is made to work for the regime; villages are collectivised and villagers and refugees labour in the fields, receiving the barest of rations in return. Valourised physical work is the central motif of the regime, while propaganda becomes the dominant mode of maintaining submission.

Secrecy and fear come to dominate the lives of everyone, as individuals and entire families are ``disappeared'', never to be seen again.

Loung witnesses appalling deprivation and violence, as the authoritarian imperative of the revolution inevitably turns violent. She struggles with a degree of family feeling, survival instinct and determination that would be admirable in an adult.

But there is a price - after the deaths of her father, eldest sister, mother, and youngest sister, Loung learns to hate, with a vengeance. This keeps her alive, but threatens to undermine her own humanity, illustrated in the scene after liberation, in which a group gathers to punish a single soldier as a symbol of all Khmer Rouge atrocities.

First They Killed My Father is something of a bildungsroman (watching a character's growth from childhood) as well as a historically and culturally specific autobiography, except that it is not fiction. Loung's learning leads directly to her later work in the campaign against landmines.

Her new life in America is broadly described but not detailed, and she uses her awareness of advantage in self-reflective, self-critical ways to draw attention to the ongoing realities and persistence of cultural memory in the closing incident.

She never loses sight of her family bonds, but on her return visit to Cambodia in 1988, Loung made the mistake of greeting her reticent family dressed in loose-fitting black pants and top - an horrific reminder for them of the uniform of the Khmer Rouge.

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