a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A gripping story from Cambodia

Loung Ung manages to beat the odds and survive the killing fields of Cambodia after the United States abandoned the war in neighboring Vietnam in 1975.

While all eyes in America are turned on the collapse of Saigon, Ung and her middle-class family begin to run from the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge army and its merciless genocide campaign. All the while, the world turns its back on one of the ugliest periods of the 20th Century.

Ung is five years old at the time, and spends the next several years starving and on the run before landing in a child labor camp to train as a soldier.

Her memoirs are told through a child’s eyes in her gripping 2001 book, “First they Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers,” that became a national bestseller and is now available in paperback.

The book is uncomfortable and depressing to read as Ung, her six siblings and their parents suffer under the weight of Pol Pot’s regime. Some 2 million of Cambodia’s population of 7 million die, with many being executed, before Vietnam liberates her country in 1979. Yet, this book is difficult to put down because of Ung’s brilliant ability to tell a story, even though it gave me the urge to vomit while reading some passages.

At one point there are so many corpses in her village that many decay into clumps of foul-smelling maggots because everyone else is too sick to dig graves. “There are so many dead people here,” she recalls in the book. “The people who die here have no relatives to grieve for them.”

Ung eventually flees with a brother to Saigon, where they are smuggled by boat to a refuge camp in Thailand. Eventually, a family in Vermont agrees to sponsor them as immigrants. She obtains a good education and later works with a campaign to rid her country of land mines, all the while being haunted by nightmares of her childhood.

At least some good comes out of this horrendous tragedy.

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