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Book Review: First They Killed My Father

I’ve been carrying around the book First They Killed My Father since I was in Cambodia, almost a month ago. I finally dove into it and finished just days later.  Loung Ung’s account of her family’s tragedy and her unlikely survival during the reign ofthe Khmer Rouge left me speechless and heartbroken.

I’ve written previously about the effect that our trip to the killing fields and the prison of Phnom Phen had on me and reading this book only amplified that experience. Ung was five years old when the Khmer Rouge forced her family to leave their comfortable, upper-middle class lives in the city of Phnom Phen. She remembers being scared but completely unaware of the gravity of her family’s situation as they walked for days to find a camp that they were assigned to work on.  As Ung matured from an unruly and spirited five-year old to a hardened eight-year old, she watched her family crumble. First, her sister, then her father, and the Khmer Rouge continued robbing her family of their lives through starvation, torture, and execution. Ung had no idea who Pol Pot was- only that she wanted to ruthlessly kill him and watch him die a slow and painful death. That hatred is what kept her going through forced labor camps, soldier camp for orphans, and the deaths of half of her family.

As an adult writing this account, Ung struck a difficult but effective balance of recalling her story with the innocence and confusion of
the young girl she was, while also providing the wisdom she has since gained. You feel the unfortunate change in Ung as she grows up in a world full of evil. It really makes you understand how under the right circumstances, someone can be raised to hate with a vengeance that could fuel violence. There is a scene where Ung has the opportunity to watch a Khmer Rouge soldier be executed by two women whose family members he killed. Ung is both fascinated and disturbed by the
brutal scene of his death. It is hard to a imagine an eight year old who can stand, unblinking, in front of a man being tortured and killed, without crying and running away- but that is the cruel world that millions of Cambodians grew to accept.

First They Killed My Father is an important piece of work for the many people who are unaware of the genocide that occurred under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. It provides a point of view that is painful but
poignant and I am grateful to have this personal story to add to my
understanding of this tragic time in history.

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