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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

A daughter of Cambodia remembers...

It has been ten whole days since we got back from Cambodia, and I still can't seem to get the place out of my head. One reason could be that I'm still religiously reading the scores of books I carted from there. The first of these was "Brother Number One: A Political Biography" by David Chandler. The book threw a lot of light on the relatively low-profile and almost unknown truth about one of the world's worst murderers.

But I found it a little too academic for my liking. I somehow prefer history when the cold, hard facts are woven with an emotional story to create a rich and memorable tapestry.

Right now, I'm halfway through "First they killed my father: A daughter of Cambodia remembers" by Loung Ung. The book is written in the past tense and documents one family's experience of the genocide, as seen through the eyes of the youngest child, Loung. The book is reasonably well written. The first few paragraphs are as follows:

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 rich enough to afford them, small cars.”

Loung and family lead a life of relative affluence (her father was a government official!) till 1975, when the 'Angkar' government of the Khmer Rogue evicted all city dwellers and forced them into the countryside. Here, they suffered many indignities at the hands of the 'base people' till, the family was slowly decimated.

Loung and a couple of her siblings had to be declared orphans and separated in order to keep them alive. They struggle through life (if one can call their experiences that) till, they are slowly and painfully re-united after the Khmer Rogue has been routed.

Although I am not yet done with the book, a couple of things are painfully clear:

  • The rich always get richer and the poor always get poorer. Irrespective of what ideology, government, policy or practice is in place.
  • Small children and kids observe a lot more than we give them credit for or would like to believe. And retain the negative impact forever.
  • Discrimination and segregation along racial lines exists, even among the worst of the discriminated.
  • And Cambodia has been through a hell from which I so surprised that there's even a semblance of recovery.

Wonder what else the book will tell me by the time I'm done with it. The next is the killing fields...


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