Thursday, December 30, 2010

"First They Killed My Father" by Loung Ung

A biography about a child survivor of the genocide in Cambodia; this book is haunting and hard not to read in one sitting. I read it in two sittings; but in less than 24 hours. And it was in my dreams and thoughts for many days afterward. Is it worth reading? Absolutely.
From 1975 to 1979, 2 million people were killed under the Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot. This book gives a pretty graphic snapshot into that time. It is told through the eyes of the main character and biographer, Loung. The story starts when she's 5 years old and the Khmer Rouge evacuate the capital city of Cambodia. Later, there is a scene of her in a camp by herself - taking care of herself, walking the road alone to find her mother - and she's 7 years old; the age of my daughter Lexi.
Anyway, I won't tell the whole story, and it isn't the sort of book you take quotes from, but I'll share a short passage. The context for this passage is that a neighbor boy has just died of starvation.
"The two girls and Chong have taken a turn for the worse since the death of the boy. A few days after his death, his two sisters decided to go to the forest and look for food by themselves. They were so hungry they ate mushrooms that turned out to be poisonous. After they died, Chong ran hysterically over to our house. "They were shaking all over! They kept calling me to help them, and I couldn't! They kept crying. They didn't even know what happened to them!" Ma catches Chong in her arms as she falls to her knees.
"They are resting now. Don't worry, they are sleeping." Ma holds Chong in her arms.
"They turned all white, the hair on their bodies stood up and blood came out of my babies' pores! My babies shook and cried for me to help them, for me to take their pain away. I couldn't do anything for them. They rolled on the ground screaming in pain, asking me to make it stop. I tried to hold on to them, but I wasn't strong enough. I watched them die! I watched them die! They died crying for me, but I couldn't help them." Chong sobs uncontrollably, sliding to the floor and lays her head in Ma's lap.
"There is nothing we can do now. They are resting." Ma strokes Chong's arm, trying to soothe her pain. But no one could save her from the pain; she cries and howls. She reached her hands into her shirt to massage her chest as if trying to exorcise the pain from her heart.
Standing beside Ma, I watch the girls being buried near their house. I cannot see their bodies, but earlier two villagers had brought out two small bundles wrapped in old black clothes. The bundles looked so small that it was hard to imagine that they were once the girls I knew. I wonder if the Angkar cares that they are dead. I remember when we first arrived at Ro Leap, the chief told us that the Angkar would take care of us and would provide us with everything we need. I guess the Angkar doesn't understand that we need to eat." p.86

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