Loung Ung has written a remarkable book. It is not easy to look back to one’s childhood and write honestly about one’s early experiences. Many of us forget much of what happened. Ung, however, was witness to one of the 20th century’s most brutal civil wars. She cannot forget.
Ung was only five years old when her family was forced by the Khmer Rouge to flee from Phnom Penh in 1975. After abandoning their truck, the family of nine hiked with what little they could carry for seven days to Krang Truop, where her uncle sheltered them until neighbors from the city arrived, threatening to expose them as the supporters of the Khmer Republic. Her father tried to keep the family together as long as he could, as they moved through a series of resettlement camps, where they served as field laborers, raising crops to feed the rebels. As the months and years passed, as they schemed to earn and steal enough food to survive, their neighbors began to disappear. Her father feared the morning when soldiers would come to take him away.
Just as in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Ung tells a story filled with daily events, like walking to work sites, working without rest, waiting in lines for inadequate rations, hiding items from guards, and visiting ill-equipped hospitals. Guards might at times be lenient or very cruel, they might turn their heads to the breaking of rules, but few could escape from the camps. There was nowhere safe to go. For four years Ung and her siblings struggled.
Loung Ung is now an activist for the Campaign for a Landmine-Free World and has just published a second book, Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind. I am looking forward to reading more of her story.
Ung, Loung. First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, c2000. ISBN 0060193328