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In the heart wrenching memoir by Loung Ung First They Killed My Father is her personal in-depth depiction as a child during civil war in Cambodia from 1975-1979. Loung Ung and her family was one small part of the Cambodian tragedy. This is her memoir of that time, and the years which follows. Showing how her experiences that forever impact her on the journey to coming of age.
The journey starts with her change in class and wealth. Loung, as a child, was only use to her “middle-class family means that we have a lot more money and possessions than many others do” (Ung pg.
15). Forced to vacate her home, possessions, and everything she knew at five years old was the first step in her coming of age. Loung had been so accustomed to a privileged upbringing to quickly becoming one of many millions to suffer. The Khmer Rouge regime group forced the Cambodian citizens from the city Phnom Penh, which is Loung’s only known home, to an eight-day death march.
Wearing the same outfit for seven days she recalls, “Standing in line wedged among many people, my nostrils are assaulted by the stale smell of bodies that had not been washed for many days” (Ung pg.31).
Loung’s clothes became gray after not having a place to stop and wash. The feeling of not being unable to bathe and running low on food supply is the beginning of her nightmare life in Cambodia. The first place they could rest, after this death march, was the first village Troup.
Loung’s uncle and relatives were living in his village and provided them temporary shelter. The separation of class was now settling in from “anyone who has worked for the deposed government, ex-soldiers or politicians” (Ung pg.31), had to register for work. “More than one and one half million Cambodians died from disease, starvation, overwork, and execution under Khmer Rouge rule” (Kent).
This being a shrilling factor for Loung and her family as they realize if they do not dispose of their middle-class lifestyle they will be executed. Loung’s uncle a part of the known and appraised “base people” living in the countryside. The separation of class is now reality for Loung, from living a luxurious lifestyle. Unaware of poverty and how it is to live in the countryside as a peasant. Facing the Unknown Reality in which she experiences life as a peasant. The communist regime rule of middle-class was now outdated. Having no experience in working in the field, made her family undesirable and deemed useless in the Khmer Rouge new society. The separation from the “base people” to the other people, whom were considered the “new” people. The “new” people were like Loung her and family, although Loung’s family were living in disguise to survive. The new people to the villages also were unfamiliar with countryside living “The cities were emptied, and their inhabitants sent to live and work in the countryside as “new” people who constituted the bottom social strata below cadre, soldiers, and “old” people who had lived under Khmer Rouge rule during the war”(Hinton).
As Loung continues her journey, she experiences the meaning of life and death. Being a witness to many casualties she remembers as a child in vivid detail of an execution of a Khmer Rouge soldier and describes in gruesome detail. “The old women’s hands shake as she raises the hammer high above her head and brings it crashing down into the prisoner’s skull. He screams a loud, shill trill cry, that pierces my heart like a stake, and I imagine this, maybe, is how Pa had died” (Ung pg.206). Not knowing exactly how her father was killed she reverted to thinking about the painful time when she lost her father and her sisters. “The soldier’s head hangs, bobbing up and down like a chicken’s. Blood gushes out of his wound, flowing down from his forehead, ears, and dripping from his chin. The woman raises the hammer again. I almost feel pity for him. But it is too late to let him go, it is too late to go back. It is to late for my parents and my country.” (Ung pg.206).
This experience even as an adolescence will remain with her as she tries hard to get this image out of her head. To grow up living in paranoia and being afraid, full of hatred and wanting to seek revenge for her deceased family members will never cease to exist. The biggest life event and her decision to dedicate the title of this memoir, was her father’s execution. After spending time unnoticed, rooted from the social standing of a middle-class citizens and father with the title of a former military policeman. The Ung’s were able to live like peasants up until this point, but they knew they could not hide forever. “Pa walks away with a solider on either side of him. I stand there and wave to him. I watch Pa’s figure get smaller and smaller, and still I wave to him, hoping he will turn around” (Ung pg.103).
Hopeful, Loung believes her father would return to them, but in coming to age, she grows to come to terms with the fact that he would not. The feeling as a child’s father is taken away from the family and to be executed. This would make it unbearable for any young child to find the strength to continue onward. Loung knew she had to “continue to live, and her love for him is what kept her alive. Her memories of her father making her feel very special, and she believed him. When he taught her to be ferocious, to ask questions, and having a more care-free approach” (YouTube) to her upbringing. Her father being the brick of the family and her strength, her mind, and the glue that kept them together. She lost her faith in her religion and practicing Buddhism, as her father was killed. The loss of religion in coming to age will refrain her from looking towards a higher power. Not knowing where to turn in the face of evil in the harrowing new world of her life. Condition and the brainwashing were the new religion as she Khmer Rouge were making children soldiers. Putting weapons in their hand, and as a reward getting food. “In the propaganda reports, we now give thanks to Pol Pot, our savior, our liberator, and not to Angkar. If a solider is a strong and skillful fighter, it is because of Pol Pot” (Ung pg.137).
Anyone who was against this totalitarianism regime and did not thought or act in this way they were deemed an enemy. Being a trained killer was embedded in their brains “All this information we get in gory detail until we are desensitized to the violence” (137). She could have killed, because Loung was trained and brainwashed in the regime’s mastered plan. The plan to make Cambodians perfect citizen in mind and body. The violence and unforgetting fact of losing her family without their remains or giving them a proper burial could never be washed out. As the journey concludes, Loung was deemed by doctors with fusion-amnesia and post-traumatic stress. Living life in pain and anguish although, she never could. or had to, bring herself to kill. Loung escaped, but never can escape the memories and horrifying life events of the Khmer Rouge genocide. The takeover of the entire country, and the city, which once was her home. By writing a memoir and joining to help fight future genocides to adequately feel that she could honor her parents and family who perished. Loung’s goal for her book was in making a focus to write a family story about grace and dignity. “How human being could live even in the most extreme circumstances, even for 24 hrs. to a month that they can do it. Still with-holding a lot of the horrific events” (YouTube).
Being sponsored by the Holy family church in Essex-junction, Vermont. She now was able to come to the United States, “Today she was the national spokesperson for the Campaign for a Landmine Free World, working to remove those deadly legacies from sites around the globe. ‘The worst days of my life have already happened,’ she explained. Now she devotes herself to saving others.” (Cawley), and to tell her story. Becoming the hero to live on and grow up to be a leader and fight against human genocide and crimes against humanity. Making future generations to come, aware of this horrific event in history, and preventing future violence in our world. Landmines still run ramped in Cambodia and other parts of the world. Today, Cambodia stays Loung’s conscious for what’s right and what’s wrong, but America now is considered her home.
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