“First They Killed My Father”


Haley Kemper
Book Response Two

I have just finished reading ‘First They Killed My Father’ by Loung Ung and tears are streaming down my face. I set out into Cambodia exactly one week ago in the hopes of experiencing the vast Angkor Temple complex and to get a small taste of Cambodia and its people. In the taxi ride from the border of Poi Pet I read a little bit of history out of my Lonely Planet guide, not only about the temples but of the country itself. Exactly one week ago was when I first learned about the civil war in Cambodia. I am deeply ashamed of this fact and at the first opportunity I bought a book that would help teach me about it. I was never even taught about the Vietnam war in school, let alone the Cambodian civil war. I had heard the words Khmer Rouge and The Killing Fields but had no idea who they were or what they meant.

My first day at the Angkor Temples I asked my tuk-tuk driver to stop after the third small temple so that I might buy some water. I was immediately hounded by about eight young girls and young women all trying to get me to buy their “cold drink” and coconuts. One of the young women stood out to me. She was standing a bit farther back from the rest of the girls and clutched in her arms were a great stack of books. Knowing myself well, and the future librarian that I will be, I immediately pushed my way through to her and asked to see her books. The first book she handed to me was, “First They Killed My Father.” I opened the cover and read:

“From 1975-1979–through execution, starvation, disease, and forced labor–the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians, almost a fourth of the country’s population. This is a story of survival; my own and my family’s. Though these events constitute my experience, my story mirrors that of millions of Cambodians, if you had been living in Cambodia during this period, this would be your story too.”

As I re-type that section I am overcome with all that I have read, and especially the last line of that excerpt. This is a story of a young girl’s survival. Her story of losing two of her sisters, her mother, and her father, and of enduring unimaginable hardships and losses. This is a story where Loung Ung, at the time a child of five years, transports you to the battlefields of Cambodia, to the labor camps, child soldier camps, and makes you see, smell, and feel all that she saw, smelled, and felt. It could have been any of us, is what Ung tells me.

While I went on a physical journey through the temples at Angkor, I simultaneously went on a mental and emotional journey with Luong Ung and all the other millions that suffered and died nearly forty years ago at the hands of their own people. In the temples I sought out any kind of connection from the Hinduism and Buddhism of the past to the Cambodian people of the present. In Siem Reap I saw no temples-no wats- and I never experienced a Cambodian praying or practicing Buddhism. For a country so steeped in religious history I was immensely surprised to find a current country and people almost without any religion at all. Why was this? I kept asking myself.

Now that I have finished the book and completed my short time in Cambodia, I perhaps know why. Throughout the memoir Luong Ung shares with us her journey, but more importantly she shares with us her confusion, anger, sadness, hurt, and hatred [for the Khmer Rouge]. Many times she says that she wants to “kill every soldier” and “make them suffer” like they made her suffer when she lost her Pa, Ma, Keav, and Geak. Buddhists, and Buddhism, as a rule, do not practice anger, hatred, revenge or anything of the sort. They practice understanding, compassion, nonviolence, and forgiveness. With all that the Cambodians faced during these four years, it seems to me Buddhism wasn’t enough to keep them going, to keep them fighting for life, to keep their hope. If you, like Luong, had experienced the death of four of your family members, seen soldiers beat, torture, and kill neighbors and other fellow people like yourself, I bet you, too, would find it hard to keep your compassion for them. What got Luong, and I’m sure many other Cambodians through the war was their passion: their anger and most importantly, their will to live. Buddhism was mentioned once in the book, near the very end when Luong and her brother Meng are at a refugee camp in Thailand. Meng has just willingly been baptized and Luong says, “but I thought we were Buddhist.” Meng tells her that it is easier to get sponsored in the U.S. if you are Christian. One single mention out of an entire book.

Not only in the book but even now in present day Cambodia you don’t see much evidence of Buddhism. Perhaps a large part of this is because religion was outlawed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (among other things such as dancing, singing, music, etc) and perhaps it never really made a comeback. Another reason could be that so much of Cambodia is farmland with very small villages rather than larger towns and cities where temples would have a chance at being maintained and built. I didn’t spend enough time in Cambodia to find out, but it was strange feeling the absence of religion while I was visiting the largest religious site in the world.

This book left me gasping for breath in many sections, crying in others, and bewilderment at the Khmer Rouge in most chapters. Luong Ung taught me about her people. She taught me about the horrible things Cambodia had to endure in the late seventies and she made me question my lack of knowledge. If I didn’t know about this, how many other similar things have gone on in this world even in the past 50 years that I don’t know about? Through her writing Ung encouraged me, and encourages others, to not close their eyes to the violence and mistreatment of people on this earth. She shares her story so that silently, other stories can be shared as well. She gives a voice to all those people murdered during the genocide and will continue to give a voice to those who wish to share their own stories but, for their own reasons, cannot.

This book has opened up a curiosity within me, not only about the Cambodian civil war, but about Buddhism as well. Buddhism preaches (in its own sense of the word) compassion, nonviolence, and the understanding and accepting of suffering so as to move through it. You then have three countries who are undergoing and underwent some of the toughest oppressions on earth: Tibet, Burma, and Cambodia, all three countries of Buddhism.

At the end of my trip to Cambodia I bought two other books detailing aspects of the civil war: “S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison” but David Chandler, the author of “Brother Number One” and “When Broken Glass Floats” by Chanrithy Him, a memoir about the “killing fields” and the Khmer Rouge regime. My learning about this time in history will continue for many years to come, and I look forward to sharing my experiences with the world and my new knowledge with others.


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