Hello, I’m back! That’s if you noticed I went a bit AWOL that is (funny fact, I actually went overseas without leave. Convenient). Sorry that I’ve been unable to write, I’ve been eating croissants and laughing at drunk people at Oktoberfest (not simultaneously). But I’m back, and the first review I’ve got up my sleeve is the less-than-cheery memoir, First They Killed My Father, by Cambodian survivor of the Pol Pot regime, Loung Ung.
For anyone who is either hazy on the details, or has never heard of the Pol Pot regime (I hadn’t until about a year ago, which says a lot about my history classes), it was a period of about five years in the 1970s when a dictator, Pol Pot, overtook Cambodia when his army, the Khmer Rouge, took control of Phnom Penh. During this period his government forced those who lived in the cities to move to the countryside, where they worked in collective farms and labour camps. Thanks to executions, forced labour, lack of medical care and simple starvation, in that five years about a quarter of the Cambodian population died.
And this is what Loung’s memoirs are about. Like I said, not exactly light-hearted reading.
Loung was 5 years old when Pol Pot overtook Cambodia, and she and her family of nine (she had three sisters and three brothers), once middle-class citizens of Phnom Penh, were forced to relocate to the Cambodian countryside and work in a labour camp, having to move multiple times, and sometimes not always together. Loung describes daily life in the labour camps and they sound beyond brutal; near starvation, forced to work hours and hours each day, despite only being a young girl, and in constant fear that they would be discovered for who they really were; a middle class family that worked for the previous government.
As her memoirs unfold, we become a part of Loung’s journey from a somewhat spoilt child to a grown-up woman, who fiercely loves her family and is willing to do anything to survive.
Obviously, I found this to be an intense read. But don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed every moment of it. While Loung’s writing is simple, I wouldn’t say that it is clunky or hard-to-read, rather her basic language only enhanced the enormity of what she was describing.
Furthermore, while it may be shocking to read, it doesn’t even begin to compare what it must be like to have lived through what Loung, and millions of other Cambodians, had to live through. Can you imagine knowing that your father has been taken away and murdered and there was nothing you could do about it? Or having to survive on almost nothing, watching your brother be beaten solely so you can have something something to eat?
It was only 40 years ago, yet it’s so easy to believe that nothing like this could happen again, or would ever happen to us in Australia, but I believe that that only makes it more necessary for us to read and inform ourselves about what others have had to endure and live through. Sadly, there are megalomaniacs and sociopaths that live amongst us, and every few decades one of them gains enough power that they can control the fate of millions of lives. Though it may be horrific to read, by understanding how the survivors felt and endured what they went through we’re a step closer to hopefully making sure that it doesn’t happen again.
Overall, I really enjoyed First They Killed My Father, as odd as that sounds. It’s an informative, absorbing read that offers an insight into the terrifying history of Cambodia in a way that is neither boring, nor censored. I would recommend this to anyone who is a fan of history, is planning on visiting Cambodia, or is simply interested in hearing life stories.
Have you read First They Killed My Father? What did you think? Let me know!