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First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers

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Overview

One of seven children of a high-ranking government official, Loung Ung lived a privileged life in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh until the age of five. Then, in April 1975, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army stormed into the city, forcing Ung's family to flee and, eventually, to disperse. Loung was trained as a child soldier in a work camp for orphans, her siblings were sent to labor camps, and those who survived the horrors would not be reunited until the Khmer Rouge was ...

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First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers

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Overview

One of seven children of a high-ranking government official, Loung Ung lived a privileged life in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh until the age of five. Then, in April 1975, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army stormed into the city, forcing Ung's family to flee and, eventually, to disperse. Loung was trained as a child soldier in a work camp for orphans, her siblings were sent to labor camps, and those who survived the horrors would not be reunited until the Khmer Rouge was destroyed.

Harrowing yet hopeful, Loung's powerful story is an unforgettable account of a family shaken and shattered, yet miraculously sustained by courage and love in the face of unspeakable brutality.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times
[Ung] tells her stories straightforwardly, vividly, and without any strenuous effort to explicate their importance, allowing the stories themselves to create their own impact.
San Francisco Chronicle
A riveting memoir...an important, moving work that those who have suffered cannot afford to forget and those who have been spared cannot afford to ignore.
Library Journal
In this "Age of Holocaust," Ung's memoir of her childhood in Pol Pot's Cambodia offers a haunting parallel to the writings of Anne Frank in the Europe of Adolf Hitler. A precocious, sparkling youngster, Ung was driven from Phnom Penh in April 1975 to relatives in the countryside, then to Khmer Rouge work camps. Here she recalls her fear, hunger, emotional pain, and loneliness as her parents and a sister were murdered and another sister died from disease. By the 1979 freeing of Cambodia by Vietnamese troops, she was a hardened, vengeful nine year old. Although written nearly 20 years later, this painful narrative retains an undeniable sense of immediacy. The childlike memories are adroitly placed in a greater context through older family members' descriptions of the political and social milieu. Recommended for public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/99.]--John F. Riddick, Central Michigan Univ. Lib., Mt. Pleasant Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
YA-Ung was a headstrong, clever child who was a delight to her father, a high-ranking government official in Phnom Penh. She was only five when the Khmer Rouge stormed the city and her family was forced to flee. They sought refuge in various camps, hiding their wealth and education, always on the move and ever fearful of being betrayed. After 20 months, Ung's father was taken away, never to be seen again. Her story of starvation, forced labor, beatings, attempted rape, separations, and the deaths of her family members is one of horror and brutality. The first-person account of Cambodia under the reign of Pol Pot will be read not only for research papers but also as a tribute to a human spirit that never gave up. YAs will applaud Ung's courage and strength.-Katherine Fitch, Rachel Carson Middle School, Fairfax, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Bernstein
During the three years that the Khmer Rouge tried to create an agrarian utopia in Cambodia, two million people are believed to have died from execution, starvation and disease. Two million -- a horrifying number, but so large as to seem almost an abstraction, like the distance to the nearest star. The number gains far greater psychological force with [this] new memoirs, whose author, a young girl in the Cambodia of the time, describes the terror and losses she suffered during the Khmer Rouge revolution in wrenchingly particular terms... [Ung] tells her stories straightforwardly, vividly, and without any strenuous effort to explicate their importance, allowing the stories themselves to create their own impact.
The New York Times
From the Publisher
"Ung's memoir should serve as a reminder that some history is best not left just to historians but to those left standing when the terror ends." —-Booklist Starred Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060856267
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/4/2006
  • Series: P.S. Series
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 62,998
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 10.86 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Loung Ung

An author, lecturer, and activist, Loung Ung has advocated for equality, human rights, and justice in her native land and worldwide for more than fifteen years. Ung lives in Cleveland, Ohio, with her husband.

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Read an Excerpt

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 whereveryou 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.

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Table of Contents

Author's Note ix
Phnom Penh April 1975 1
The Ung Family April 1975 7
Takeover April 17, 1975 17
Evacuation April 1975 23
Seven-Day Walk April 1975 28
Krang Truop April 1975 38
Waiting Station July 1975 44
Anlungthmor July 1975 50
Ro Leap November 1975 56
Labor Camps January 1976 69
New Year's April 1976 79
Keav August 1976 93
Pa December 1976 101
Ma's Little Monkey April 1977 113
Leaving Home May 1977 120
Child Soldiers August 1977 129
Gold for Chicken November 1977 144
The Last Gathering May 1978 151
The Walls Crumble November 1978 158
The Youn Invasion January 1979 165
The First Foster Family January 1979 175
Flying Bullets February 1979 184
Khmer Rouge Attack February 1979 195
The Execution March 1979 203
Back to Bat Deng April 1979 209
From Cambodia to Vietnam October 1979 218
Lam Sing Refugee Camp February 1980 228
Epilogue 235
Acknowledgments 239
Resources 241
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Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary

First They Killed My Father is a heart-wrenching and often difficult historical autobiography that recounts the brutality of war with vivid detail. A story of political oppression in Cambodia, it is all the more striking and intense as it is told from the perspective of a child, one who is thrust into situations that she doesn't understand, as she is only five years old when the terror begins. Loung Ung made many difficult journeys during her Cambodian youth, starting with being evacuated from her hometown of Phnom Penh. More meaningful were the journeys of self, which led her from a life as the child of a large and privileged family to that of an orphan and work camp laborer. From the deaths of her parents and sisters, we get a glimpse of the power that family relationships have in our lives. From the loss of economic status, the ways in which our social class can define our days is drawn in sharper relief. From her growing knowledge of the regime that has caused her to suffer, we learn of the vast gulf that often exists between a government's intentions and its actions, between words and deeds.

Ung's story offers an account of the warping effects that war can have on an individual, as well as of the possibility of survival and triumph through seemingly insurmountable adversity. We learn of the daily difficulties that come with an atmosphere of political instability-how neighbors cannot trust one another, how common people become executioners, how a political regime can value the acquisition of weapons before feeding its own people, and the tragedy that necessarily follows. The result is a book of incredible power which demonstrates more than thewill to survive of a small child, more than the forces in her life that sustained her through feelings of rage, love, and guilt to a life of activism against global forces of violence. A history of war that may not be on many American's radar screens, Ung's recollections are a chilling testament to what happens when a political movement becomes invulnerable to reason in its quest for power, and also of the ability of the human spirit to endure the harshest conditions.

Questions for Discussion

  • What fundamental problems existed in the Khmer Rouge's plan that caused the destruction of so many lives? Were there any values that the Khmer Rouge claimed to hold that you share?
  • What impact did the narrator's child's voice have on your experience as a reader? How would you characterize the transformation that takes place in her narrative voice throughout the story?
  • How did it affect your reading of the book that you were aware of Loung's father's impending death long before her?
  • Would you describe Loung as a feminist? How did the experiences of the Ung family differ during the war because of gender?
  • What was your impression of the final separation, both geographic and cultural, that Loung had with her surviving family? Did you sympathize with her eventual desire to assimilate into American culture, or had you expected her to be more aggressive about pursuing her family relationships earlier on?
  • Loung saw herself as a "strong" person, as did many other people in the book, and was eventually drafted into a soldier training camp as a result. What are the qualities of a survivor? How does one reconcile compassion with a will to survive? What qualities enabled her gentle sister Chou to survive as well?
  • With armed struggle a reality of life for people all over the world both past and present, how does one draw the line as to which means are ethical and unethical for coping with it, such as the author's current campaign against the use of landmines? Are there other tools of war that you believe should be broadly banned? About the Author: Loung Ung is National Spokesperson for the "Campaign for a Landmine Free World," a program of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. VVAF founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines which was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Ung lectures extensively throughout the United States and appears regularly in the media.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 117 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(87)

4 Star

(20)

3 Star

(5)

2 Star

(0)

1 Star

(5)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 117 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2003

    They did not kill her soul

    First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers is genocide viewed through a child's eyes. Twenty years later, Cambodia's killing fields still cover unspeakable atrocities the world has yet to unearth. This is one survivor's attempt to shed light on the pain she tried to bury along with the dead.The strength and the weakness of this book rests in its style; the use of the present tense in a child's voice can fall flat. Nonetheless, the narrative can leave the reader stunned and near tears several pages later. As author Loung Ung reconstructs political conversations she claims she had with her beloved father at the age of five, it strikes the reader as totally contrived--as it obviously is. Yet as she describes a child's fear spawned by war, terror, hunger, and the nightmares that follow her at all times, it becomes all too real. Loung, now a beautiful American woman, becomes a tough little Cambodian girl again at these points. It seems almost a sacrilege to criticize any aspect of this compelling book, though, because it is such a powerful testament to the human spirit. On balance, the shortcomings that result from Loung's style are greatly outweighed by the power her narrative evokes. The guilt she suffers after she has eaten some of her family's scarce rice, for example, reveals a child's innate honesty and ability to grasp the ramifications of the simplest act. As pirates steal a jade Buddha, the last tangible link to Loung's murdered father, the reader feels the orphaned child's complete numbness. Loung's observations about her siblings' different personalities, and how these varied traits allowed some to survive the communist slaughter, probably are the strongest observations in the book. Loung concedes she cannot understand how such a sensitive person as her sister Chou lived amidst the ever-present threat of rape, murder, torture and starvation, and the reader grows to appreciate the beauty that terrible mystery represents. As reports emerge from North Korea and elsewhere about mass starvation and terror under the reigns of madmen, the reader can recall that two decades ago the same happened in Cambodia and the world stood mute as it would again and again in Rwanda and too many other places to name. Each new indignity against humanity makes the slogan "never again" ring a little more hollow, but as long as writers like Loung survive and chronicle what happened, the hope the phrase represents will endure because in the end they did not kill her soul.

    8 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2000

    A History that Reads Like a Thriller

    An incredible memoir of life during the Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia, 1975 to 1979. Ms. Ung manages to tell her story keeping the voice of the child she was but with the intelligence and insight of an adult. Although mostly horror, some of the childhood vignettes are funny and universal. The author never sugarcoats the sweeter moments, nor does she overly dramatize her most desperate experiences. What comes through is a brutally honest yet delightful (I know that sounds like a nonsequitor) narrative that completely draws the reader into Luong's story. This book moves. From first page to last the pace never lags. I started reading it in the late afternoon and only put it down in the early morning from sheer exaustion. First thing upon getting up, I picked it up to finish reading. In other words, the book reads like a terrific novel. Although a real story of survival during a grisly, genocidal time, this book is the opposite of homework. I'm left leafing through to reread parts, and wishing to know more about the later lives of all of Luong's surviving family. Let's hope Luong Ung follows up with another book where this one leaves off.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2011

    One of my favorite books. This book first sparked my interest in humanitarian efforts and biographies as a middle school student. Now a junior in college I still find this story to be excellently told and captivating. I highly recommend this book to anyone with a heart.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2012

    An important, heart-wrenching memoir

    This book touched a part of me that I never knew existed. I succumbed to tears multiple times when I first read it. Unlike other books, though, this raw emotion didn't fade the second, third, or fourth time I read this book. First They Killed My Father will stay with you; becomme a part of you. As you read, you will become acquainted with these people you've never met, but you will feel as if you've known them all your life. You will feel their suffering and shed their tears. Peace be with them!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 17, 2012

    Highly recommended - this book will make you grateful everyday for the blessings in our lives that we take so for granted! The author as a child lived through incredible destruction of her home, her family and her life. Unputdownable!!

    This is an incredibly well written account of the experiences of a five year old who witnessed the utter destruction of her family and world at the hands of the Khmer Rhouge regime. Her strength of spirit and determination to survive through the most abhorent conditions and situations is a testament to her character. I loved this book and will try very hard to be grateful everyday for the blessings that so many of us overlook on a daily basis. Thank you Ms. Ung for sharing your story as it must have been very difficult to re-live this chapter in your life.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2011

    Amazing

    I loved this book.i had to read it for one of my classes and i dont really like biographies but this is one of the best books ive read

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 23, 2012

    Highly Recommend

    Loved this book, from beginning to end. Totally compelling to follow the author, as a child, surviving Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge rebellion. It was upsetting, unbelievable, terribly sad, and mostly informative. While killing was going on all around her she learned to survive. It all started when she was only 5 years old. And the ending, while good for the author was very bittersweet.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2011

    amazing.

    one of the most powerful books i've read. my favorite book ever.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 6, 2011

    excellent eye-opener to a very sad happening...

    This book is beautifully written from the viewpoint of a participating victim. Sadly but fortunately it is honest though brutal.

    The gallantry shown in keeping the family together in the present and future is a noble goal - as is the respectful and loving memory of those who suffered death at the hand of the enemy.

    Prayers to all who survived and to those who have read this accounting. May we all remember to count our blessings daily.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 25, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A life changing read!

    I bought this book from a little girl selling books in Cambodia during Christmas time. So, if you have been to Cambodia and seen the poverty this book is a great way to help you get an insight into why, how and what happened to make Cambodia the way it is.

    It is written from the perspective of a 5 year old girl who's life was turned upside down when the Khmer Rouge communist takeover happened, and tells things from her curious eyes. It makes it entertaining and easy to understand, but at times heartbreaking and hard to handle.

    After reading this book, it made me want to change my lifestyle and reorganize my priorities. I think this author is amazing, and I think she made an amazing recount of her life.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 17, 2012

    Read This 1!!!!

    Well my history teacher (i go to a christian school) gave me this book without reading it first and after i told her about some of the content of the story she felt pretty bad ;) other than that its a pretty good story and really puts things into perspective (LIFE COULD BE WORSE!!)

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2012

    Just WOW! The suffering and how some Cambodians managed to survive starvation and pure sadness and fright.


    A wothwhile read, though sometimes difficult to absorb. Never again will I say I am starving, without stopping to think about what that really means.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2012

    Anonymous

    Eye opening. Cleverly written

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2012

    love it

    This book will always be a treasure to me because its just so i cant describe love it love it love it i would rate this book 1000000 1000000

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2011

    Shocking

    A shocking true story.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 23, 2011

    Highly Recommended

    Courageous, gutsy, amazing....this book should be on the mandatory reading list for high school students. I couldn't put it down once I started it...now that I've read it I think twice before I complain about ANYTHING.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 17, 2011

    AMAZING!

    I began reading this book for school and insted of reading 50 pages like we were suposted to, I stayed up all night finishing this book. This book is beautifuly written in such a powerful way. I mean this when I say this, this book changed my life. I've neve cryed so hard in my life! Everyone, I mean EVERYONE should read this book!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2011

    Life Changing!

    Amazing story through the eyes of a young little girl. A must read that will change your life.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 16, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    beautiful

    this book was amazing

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 8, 2010

    A must read!!

    The book First They Killed My Father is a remarkable book. It's a tough read, but definitly worth your while. The book covers the years of 1975 through 1979, It talks about deaths of many family members. Being forced to seperate and then later on reuniting the family. This young girl goes through beatings, starvation, and attempted rape but yet she never gives up on trying to make her escape for survival. This book provides an example of how war can deeply affect a childs life. Sad but inspiring, I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Cambodias history, this book gives Loung Ungs personal view of events.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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