First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, a book so frayed and tattered, curling at the corners; I carried it with me everywhere I went. I simply couldn’t put it down. What sort of a person could leave the words unturned? I just had to know what happened next to Loung Ung’s family during the brutal executions of the Khmer Rouge.
As I cried into the disturbing pages which unravelled the truth about human nature (or insanity), the world around me was smiling. A little girl called Mei showed a nearby policeman her latest toy from Phnom Penh Market and her father’s face beamed as we all clumsily pointed at the map. He was our tuk tuk driver, and he was going to be for the next three days. As etiquette had it, your tuk tuk operator was your designated driver until your departure, because in Cambodia, people just couldn’t afford to wonder how to feed the hungry mouths of their families when they didn’t have any business. This was just the way it was, no-one questioned it, and the world around me was still smiling.
As Mei and her father drove us around the crazy Phnom Penh roads, I saw the ordinary everyday lives of hundreds of Cambodians unfold in front of me as I clung on tightly to my book. Despite the pain of Loung Ung as she watched Khmer soliders take the life of her father 40 years ago, life today for Mei went on as normal. I couldn’t believe it.
Loung Ung, Survivor of the Killing Fields
The words in Loung Ung’s book and the picture painted by the country’s brave people seemed worlds apart to me. Masked by millions of smiling faces like Mei’s and her father’s, I couldn’t believe their past. But what tore me up inside was that this happened less than 40 years ago. Less than 40 years ago, human beings were throwing Cambodian babies into the air and watching their skulls crack as their heads collided with the ground. Less than 40 years ago, people were buried alive because the Pol Pot government didn’t want to waste the expense of bullets. Less than 40 years ago, children under the age of 12 were given guns and brainwashed into shooting their own families.
As I got further into the book and learned more about the terrible things that happened to Loung Ung’s family, I realised that this was just one girl’s story. Loung, despite her four years of suffering, was one of the lucky ones who didn’t have to seize a gun up to the head of a loved one, and as our tuk tuk guided us through the humble city, I wondered how many faces I’d seen were the faces of a child soldier.
Child Soldiers of the Khmer Rouge
The old man selling eels at the Russian Market in South Phnom Pennh – he seemed like any other old man with a family to feed, but could he have been a child executioner in a past life? The monk coming out of the Royal Palace – he had a serene expression on his face, but could he have been a cold blooded killer in the Khmer Rouge? Mei’s father beamed into the rear view mirror of his tuk tuk – his smile was so pure but could he have been a child soldier 40 years ago? Not everybody wrote down their feelings and shared it with the world like Loung Ung, but that just meant that what we didn’t know, couldn’t hurt us. The soldiers and executioners of the Pol Pot regime were walking around us today, as were the victims, and although the hopeful faces blurring past our tuk tuk told an optimistic story, most outsiders like myself could never forget the truth. Because as outsiders, we didn’t have to force ourselves to forget.
Our tuk tuk finally dropped us off at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, whereit almost felt safer to be in the heart of a painful reality. The Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre is just one of the many killing fields dotted around the country, and this memorial painted a candid picture of events, more harrowing than any history book ever taught us. Bones scattered the ground, torn clothing lay there in the dust and over 9,000 skulls towered over me. This was a mass grave, one that didn’t paper over the cracks of brutality.
Standing there, I felt uncontrollable sorrow to be in the dying place of 20,000 Khmer victims, many of whom were just children. Our guide told us that although nothing was concealed here at the memorial, the Pol Pot reign was still not a part of the Cambodia school curriculum. I was right – Cambodia just wanted to forget.
Finishing the Book and Saying Goodbye to Mei
As we drove back to the hotel, I stopped turning the heavy pages of First They Killed My Father. I didn’t want to cry in front of Mei, not when she looked so blissfully happy without any inkling of her country’s recent past. I wondered whether her father, who seemed to adore her so much, would tell her about his in years to come.
Back at the hotel, I put the book back into the bottom of my suitcase. I didn’t want to be seen carrying the very thing that everyone else was trying to forget, and I didn’t want Mei asking her dad why the book was making me so sad. A few days later, it was time to move onto Siem Reap and say our goodbyes to Mei and her father, and I could finally finish the rest of Loung Ung’s book. But I seemed to have built some false hope into the completion of her story, because even by the end of it, there was still no conclusion; I still didn’t understand why. Why did all those people have to die? For what?
No matter where I go, or what I do in life, the memories of travelling in Cambodia always stays with me. The book will always be the one thing that makes me question the meaning of civilisation. And I hope that more people learn about the unforgiveable war crimes of Pol Pot and his men.
Mags Yip is the author and editor of The Smart Girl’s Budget Travel Guide, a brand new travel blog for women. She shares all of her latest travels from South East Asia, Europe and America, and loves to swap travel stories with other nomads on Facebook and Twitter.