First they killed my father
…is the title of Loung Ung’s account on how she survived the genocide in Cambodia as a child, when over 2 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge or starved to death due to Pol Pots idea to establish a purely agrarian society from 1975 to 1979.
A Kafkesque scenario became reality for Cambodian people. Medical treatment was banned as everyone was supposed to be self reliant. Money was banned because it was considered useless in the utopian world of equality. Individuality was banned, clothes and personal belongings burned and everyone was given the same black shirts and pants. City life ceased to exist as everybody was forced to leave urban areas and find shelter in rural province to work on the fields or ditches, being declared metropolitan, therefore second class citizens. Religion was forbidden and minorities vanished. Everyone with an education, wearing glasses, anyone considered to be an intellectual and capitalist had to be eliminated. Rape, murder and torture was the Khmer Rouge’s main activity, their motto being: ‘To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.’
Hundreds of children turned into orphans, stripped of their identity, turned into slave laborers and child soldiers, brainwashed by regime’s puppets in camps – this is what Loung had to endure, her deep hate of the Angkar (Pol Pots communist organization) letting her live on anger and the urge for (imaginary) revenge. Surviving on her wits she changed her name, denied her happy childhood and told everyone who asked that her parents have been poor workers.
It is hard to comprehend the communist fanaticism of the Khmer Rouge causing fear, mistrust, hunger, destroying economy, families and social relationships, leading to a fight of survival for all people in a country that the Khmer Rouge turned into living hell, killing one fourth of Cambodia’s population in only four years. The book lets you come very close to the hopelessness and pain of the Cambodian people. Through one story we learn about the fate of millions.
‘If you had been living in Cambodia during that time it would be your story, too’, is a phrase from Loung that stuck with me. I couldn’t put the book down till the end, Tomek continually passing me tissues to wipe off the tears of my face. After reading Loung’s story, I saw Cambodia in another light, noticing buildings with bullet holes, the damages and looting revealing itself in abandoned, empty houses. One can feel the energy of a very young population and the efforts to put the past behind, parts of the city shining in new splendor, destroyed temples and museums restored drawing a bigger tourist crowd every year.
Cambodia has lost its intellectual elite, most of the people managing to escape did not return after the terrors. Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are very small towns with new hotels, shops, restaurants and cafes only just opening – major cities are gradually coming to life again. But the difference in development and infrastructure in comparison to other Asian countries is still vast. Cambodia is now on its way to come to terms with the terror and focus on a brighter future.
I have seen one self-declared bookshop in Siem Reap, which was selling toys and stationary. And one stationary shop that had a tiny books section :) Books in English are mainly sold on the street by very young Cambodians who turn into walking bookstores carrying all the bestsellers, photocopied and nicely bound. The xerox quality only becomes apparent, when closely examining the cover or when reading, pages start deviating to one side and have handwritten numbers – and you haven’t been drinking!
Blurry photocopy stripes. But a very good read nevertheless.
Color copied book cover. With the original price being 7.99£ it still sold for 4$ at the Battambang (northwestern town in Cambodia) smiling bookshop. I found the bookshop’s stamp inside.
Don’t judge the book by its xeroxed cover! :)