First they killed my fat.., p.1
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       First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, p.1

           Loung Ung
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First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers


  they killed my father

  a daughter of cambodia remembers


  In memory of the two million people who perished under the Khmer Rouge regime.

  This book is dedicated to my father, Ung; Seng Im, who always believed in me; my mother, Ung; Ay Choung, who always loved me.

  To my sisters Keav, Chou, and Geak because sisters are forever; my brother Kim, who taught me about courage; my brother Khouy, for contributing more than one hundred pages of our family history and details of our lives under the Khmer Rouge, many of which I incorporated into this book; to my brother Meng and sister-in-law Eang Muy Tan, who raised me (quite well) in America.


  Author’s Note

  family chart 1975

  Phnom Penh April 1975

  The Ung Family April 1975

  Takeover April 17, 1975

  Evacuation April 1975

  Seven-Day Walk April 1975

  Krang Truop April 1975

  Waiting Station July 1975

  Anglungthmor July 1975

  Ro Leap November 1975

  Labor Camps January 1976

  New Year’s April 1976

  Keav August 1976

  Pa December 1976

  Ma’s Little Monkey April 1977

  Leaving Home May 1977

  Child Soldiers August 1977

  Gold for Chicken November 1977

  The Last Gathering May 1978

  The Walls Crumble November 1978

  The Youn Invasion January 1979

  The First Foster Family January 1979

  Flying Bullets February 1979

  Khmer Rouge Attack February 1979

  The Execution March 1979

  Back to Bat Deng April 1979

  From Cambodia to Vietnam October 1979

  Lam Sing Refugee Camp February 1980






  Also By Loung Ung


  About the Publisher

  author’s note

  From 1975 to 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.

  family chart 1975

  phnom penh

  April 1975

  Phnom Penh city wakes early to take advantage of the cool morning breeze before the sun breaks through the haze and invades the country with sweltering heat. Already at 6 A.M. people in Phnom Penh are rushing and bumping into each other on dusty, narrow side streets. Waiters and waitresses in black-and-white uniforms swing open shop doors as the aroma of noodle soup greets waiting customers. Street vendors push food carts piled with steamed dumplings, smoked beef teriyaki sticks, and roasted peanuts along the sidewalks and begin to set up for another day of business. Children in colorful T-shirts and shorts kick soccer balls on sidewalks with their bare feet, ignoring the grunts and screams of the food cart owners. The wide boulevards sing with the buzz of motorcycle engines, squeaky bicycles, and, for those wealthy enough to afford them, small cars. By midday, as temperatures climb to over a hundred degrees, the streets grow quiet again. People rush home to seek relief from the heat, have lunch, take cold showers, and nap before returning to work at 2 P.M.

  My family lives on a third-floor apartment in the middle of Phnom Penh, so I am used to the traffic and the noise. We don’t have traffic lights on our streets; instead, policemen stand on raised metal boxes, in the middle of the intersections directing traffic. Yet the city always seems to be one big traffic jam. My favorite way to get around with Ma is the cyclo because the driver can maneuver it in the heaviest traffic. A cyclo resembles a big wheelchair attached to the front of a bicycle. You just take a seat and pay the driver to wheel you around wherever you want to go. Even though we own two cars and a truck, when Ma takes me to the market we often go in a cyclo because we get to our destination faster. Sitting on her lap I bounce and laugh as the driver pedals through the congested city streets.

  This morning, I am stuck at a noodle shop a block from our apartment in this big chair. I’d much rather be playing hopscotch with my friends. Big chairs always make me want to jump on them. I hate the way my feet just hang in the air and dangle. Today, Ma has already warned me twice not to climb and stand on the chair. I settle for simply swinging my legs back and forth beneath the table.

  Ma and Pa enjoy taking us to a noodle shop in the morning before Pa goes off to work. As usual, the place is filled with people having breakfast. The clang and clatter of spoons against the bottom of bowls, the slurping of hot tea and soup, the smell of garlic, cilantro, ginger, and beef broth in the air make my stomach rumble with hunger. Across from us, a man uses chopsticks to shovel noodles into his mouth. Next to him, a girl dips a piece of chicken into a small saucer of hoisin sauce while her mother cleans her teeth with a toothpick. Noodle soup is a traditional breakfast for Cambodians and Chinese. We usually have this, or for a special treat, French bread with iced coffee.

  “Sit still,” Ma says as she reaches down to stop my leg midswing, but I end up kicking her hand. Ma gives me a stern look and a swift slap on my leg.

  “Don’t you ever sit still? You are five years old. You are the most troublesome child. Why can’t you be like your sisters? How will you ever grow up to be a proper young lady?” Ma sighs. Of course I have heard all this before.

  It must be hard for her to have a daughter who does not act like a girl, to be so beautiful and have a daughter like me. Among her women friends, Ma is admired for her height, slender build, and porcelain white skin. I often overhear them talking about her beautiful face when they think she cannot hear. Because I’m a child, they feel free to say whatever they want in front of me, believing I cannot understand. So while they’re ignoring me, they comment on her perfectly arched eyebrows; almond-shaped eyes; tall, straight Western nose; and oval face. At 5′6″, Ma is an amazon among Cambodian women. Ma says she’s so tall because she’s all Chinese. She says that some day my Chinese side will also make me tall. I hope so, because now when I stand I’m only as tall as Ma’s hips.

  “Princess Monineath of Cambodia, now she is famous for being proper,” Ma continues. “It is said that she walks so quietly that no one ever hears her approaching. She smiles without ever showing her teeth. She talks to men without looking directly in their eyes. What a gracious lady she is.” Ma looks at me and shakes her head.

  “Hmm …” is my reply, taking a loud swig of Coca-Cola from the small bottle.

  Ma says I stomp around like a cow dying of thirst. She’s tried many times to teach me the proper way for a young lady to walk. First, you connect your heel to the ground, then roll the ball of your feet on the earth while your toes curl up painfully. Finally you end up with your toes gently pushing you off the ground. All this is supposed to be done gracefully, naturally, and quietly. It all sounds too complicated and painful to me. Besides, I am happy stomping around.

  “The kind of trouble she gets into, while just the other day she—”Ma continues to Pa but is interrupted when our waitress arrives with our soup.

  “Phnom Penh special noodles with chicken for you and a glass of hot water,” says the waitress as she puts the steaming bowl of translucent potato noodles
swimming in clear broth before Ma. “Two spicy Shanghai noodles with beef tripe and tendons.” Before she leaves, the waitress also puts down a plate filled with fresh bean sprouts, lime slices, chopped scallions, whole red chili peppers, and mint leaves.

  As I add scallions, bean sprouts, and mint leaves to my soup, Ma dips my spoon and chopsticks into the hot water, wiping them dry with her napkin before handing them back to me. “These restaurants are not too clean, but the hot water kills the germs.” She does the same to her and Pa’s tableware. While Ma tastes her clear broth chicken noodle soup, I drop two whole red chili peppers in my bowl as Pa looks on approvingly. I crush the peppers against the side of the bowl with my spoon and finally my soup is ready to taste the way I like it. Slowly, I slurp the broth and instantaneously my tongue burns and my nose drips.

  A long time ago, Pa told me that people living in hot countries should eat spicy foods because it makes them drink more water. The more water we drink, the more we sweat, and sweating cleanses our bodies of impurities. I don’t understand this, but I like the smile he gives me; so I again reach my chopsticks toward the pepper dish, knocking over the salt shaker, which rolls like a fallen log onto the floor.

  “Stop what you’re doing,” Ma hisses.

  “It was an accident,” Pa tells her and smiles at me.

  Ma frowns at Pa and says, “Don’t you encourage her. Have you forgotten the chicken fight episode? She said that was an accident also and now look at her face.”

  I can’t believe Ma is still angry about that. It was such a long time ago, when we visited my uncle’s and aunt’s farm in the countryside and I played with their neighbor’s daughter. She and I had a chicken we would carry around to have fights with the other kids’ chickens. Ma wouldn’t have found out about it if it weren’t for the big scratch that still scars my face.

  “The fact that she gets herself in and out of these situations gives me hope. I see them as clear signs of her cleverness.” Pa always defends me—to everybody. He often says that people just don’t understand how cleverness works in a child and that all these troublesome things I do are actually signs of strength and intelligence. Whether or not Pa is right, I believe him. I believe everything Pa tells me.

  If Ma is known for her beauty, Pa is loved for his generous heart. At 5′5″, he weighs about 150 pounds and has a large, stocky shape that contrasts with Ma’s long, slender frame. Pa reminds me of a teddy bear, soft and big and easy to hug. Pa is part Cambodian and part Chinese and has black curly hair, a wide nose, full lips, and a round face. His eyes are warm and brown like the earth, shaped like a full moon. What I love most about Pa is the way he smiles not only with his mouth but also with his eyes.

  I love the stories about how my parents met and married. While Pa was a monk, he happened to walk across a stream where Ma was gathering water with her jug. Pa took one look at Ma and was immediately smitten. Ma saw that he was kind, strong, and handsome, and she eventually fell in love with him. Pa quit the monastery so he could ask her to marry him, and she said yes. However, because Pa is dark-skinned and was very poor, Ma’s parents refused to let them marry. But they were in love and determined, so they ran away and eloped.

  They were financially stable until Pa turned to gambling. At first, he was good at it and won many times. Then one day he went too far and bet everything on a game—his house and all his money. He lost that game and almost lost his family when Ma threatened to walk out on him if he did not stop gambling. After that, Pa never played card games again. Now we are all forbidden to play cards or even to bring a deck of cards home. If caught, even I will receive grave punishment from him. Other than his gambling, Pa is everything a good father could be: kind, gentle, and loving. He works hard, as a military police captain so I don’t get to see him as much as I want. Ma tells me that his never came from stepping on everyone along the way. Pa never forgot what it was like to be poor, and as a result, he takes time to help many others in need. People truly respect and like him.

  “Loung is too smart and clever for people to understand,” Pa says and winks at me. I beam at him. While I don’t know about the cleverness part, I do know that I am curious about the world—from worms and bugs to chicken fights and the bras Ma hangs in her room.

  “There you go again, encouraging her to behave this way.” Ma looks at me, but I ignore her and continue to slurp my soup. “The other day she walked up to a street vendor selling grilled frog legs and proceeded to ask him all these questions. ‘Mister, did you catch the frogs from the ponds in the country or do you raise them? What do you feed frogs? How do you skin a frog? Do you find worms in its stomach? What do you do with the bodies when you sell only the legs?’ Loung asked so many questions that the vendor had to move his cart away from her. It is just not proper for a girl to talk so much.”

  Squirming around in a big chair, Ma tells me, is also not proper behavior.

  “I’m full, can I go?” I ask, swinging my legs even harder.

  “All right, you can go play.” Ma says with a sigh. I jump out of the chair and head off to my friend’s house down the street.

  Though my stomach is full, I still crave salty snack food. With the money Pa gave me in my pocket, I approach a food cart selling roasted crickets. There are food carts on every corner, selling everything from ripe mangoes to sugarcane, from Western cakes to French crêpes. The street foods are readily available and always cheap. These stands are very popular in Cambodia. It is a common sight in Phnom Penh to see people on side streets sitting in rows on squat stools eating their food. Cambodians eat constantly, and everything is there to be savored if you have money in your pocket, as I do this morning.

  Wrapped in a green lotus leaf, the brown, glazed crickets smell of smoked wood and honey. They taste like salty burnt nuts. Strolling slowly along the sidewalk, I watch men crowd around the stands with the pretty young girls at them. I realize that a woman’s physical beauty is important, that it never hurts business to have attractive girls selling your products. A beautiful young woman turns otherwise smart men into gawking boys. I’ve seen my own brothers buy snacks they’d never usually eat from a pretty girl while avoiding delicious food sold by homely girls.

  At five I also know I am a pretty child, for I have heard adults say to Ma many times how ugly I am. “Isn’t she ugly?” her friends would say to her. What black, shiny hair, look at her brown, smooth skin! That heart-shaped face makes one want to reach out and pinch those dimpled apple cheeks. Look at those full lips and her smile! Ugly!

  “Don’t tell me I am ugly! I would scream at them, and they would laugh.

  That was before Ma explained to me that in Cambodia people don’t outright compliment a child. They don’t want to call attention to the child. It is believed that evil spirits easily get jealous when they hear a child being complimented, and they may come and take away the child to the other world.

  the ung family

  April 1975

  We have a big family, nine in all: Pa, Ma, three boys, and four girls. Fortunately, we have a big apartment that houses everyone comfortably. Our apartment is built like a train, narrow in the front with rooms extending out to the back. We have many more rooms than the other houses I’ve visited. The most important room in our house is the living room, where we often watch television together. It is very spacious and has an unusually high ceiling to leave room for the loft that my three brothers share as their bedroom. A small hallway leading to the kitchen splits Ma and Pa’s bedroom from the room my three sisters and I share. The smell of fried garlic and cooked rice fills our kitchen when the family takes their usual places around a mahogany table where we each have our own high-backed teak chair. From the kitchen ceiling the electric fan spins continuously, carrying these familiar aromas all around our house—even into our bathroom. We are very modern—our bathroom is equipped with amenities such as a flushing toilet, an iron bathtub, and running water.

  I know we are middle-class because of our apartment and the possession
s we have. Many of my friends live in crowded homes with only two or three rooms for a family of ten. Most well-to-do families live in apartments or houses above the ground floor. In Phnom Penh, it seems that the more money you have, the more stairs you have to climb to your home. Ma says the ground level is undesirable because dirt gets into the house and nosy people are always peeking in, so of course only poor people live on the ground level. The truly impoverished live in makeshift tents in areas where I have never been allowed to wander.

  Sometimes on the way to the market with Ma, I catch brief glimpses of these poor areas. I watch with fascination as children with oily black hair, wearing old, dirty clothes run up to our cyclo in their bare feet. Many look about the same size as me as they rush over with naked younger siblings bouncing on their backs. Even from afar, I see red dirt covers their faces, nestling in the creases of their necks and under their fingernails. Holding up small wooden carvings of the Buddha, oxen, wagons, and miniature bamboo flutes with one hand, they balance oversized woven straw baskets on their heads or straddled on their hips and plead with us to buy their wares. Some have nothing to sell and approach us murmuring with extended hands. Every time, before I can make out what they say, the cyclo’s rusty bell clangs noisily, forcing the children to scurry out of our way.

  There are many markets in Phnom Penh, some big and others small, but their products are always similar. There is the Central Market, the Russian Market, the Olympic Market, and many others. Where people go to shop depends on which market is the closest to their house. Pa told me the Olympic Market was once a beautiful building. Now its lackluster façade is gray from mold and pollution, and its walls cracked from neglect. The ground that was once lush and green, filled with bushes and flowers, is now dead and buried under outdoor tents and food carts, where thousands of shoppers traverse everyday.

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