Before Cambodia surfaced on my travel agenda, I really didn’t know anything about the nightmares of the country’s unspeakably horrific, all too recent history. To tell you the truth, the words “Cambodia” and “Genocide” only seemed vaguely tied together in my mind by distant flashcards I once made in high school while cramming an entire century of world history into a single semester. I’m the person who usually shuts my mind to tragedies that my fortunate upbringing makes impossible to fathom, the one who turns off the news when ghastly sights from across the globe are projected into my cozy living room, the one who uses the shocking headlines of black and white newsprint as a coaster for my latte at Starbucks. It’s not that I don’t care about what goes on, it’s just that the more I learn about the suffering around the world, the more I feel utterly helpless and at the same time undeservedly blessed to be born into the body, the family and the country I was born into.
But being here, in Cambodia, the country’s past cannot be ignored, and I had the desire to understand it to the fullest of my meager ability. After a little bit of book browsing, I downloaded First they Killed My Father by Loung Ung, a first-hand memoir of a survivor of the genocide that killed an estimated two million Cambodians, almost a fourth of the population, from 1975 to 1979. Those who escaped execution in the killing fields were forced into labor camps. Hard earned money and worldly possessions were stripped away, families were torn apart, and men, women and children were forced to work seven days a week, 10-12 hours a day ,in the grueling conditions of the hot and humid Cambodian countryside on less than a bowl of rice a day. Millions of men, women and children died of sickness and starvation as they were literally worked to death–slaves to the vision of a dictator and an extremist faction of militants, all the while, completely isolated from the rest of the world.
I can’t begin to re-describe the unfathomable terrors the author courageously digs up from her childhood memory–she was only five years old, living in Phnom Penh, at the time of the Khmr Rouge takeover–I can only encourage you to pick up the book and read it yourself. Prepare to cry, prepare to feel hatred towards the horrors manifested through other’s hatred, but open your eyes to the world around you and read something that makes you feel angry, depressed, but ultimately blessed at the same time to be spared the tragedy that an entire nation of people were not. It’s a book that will put life and all your worries and anxieties into perspective – something we all need once in a while, especially myself.