“Crush the Vietnamese!” is the rallying cry given to Loung Ung and dozens of other children dressed in identical grey clothing and red scarves, absorbing orders from a teenage girl soldier standing over them in the Cambodian countryside.

It is one of many disturbing scenes in First They Killed My Father, Angelina Jolie’s Netflix adaptation of Ung’s haunting memoir of life under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime.

Released on 15 September, it charts the communist group’s ascent and the early years of its bloody reign, believed to have left up to two million Cambodians dead and displaced and created countless child combatants.

The film, set between 1975-79, opens as Khmer Rouge troops sweep through Phnom Penh forcing five-year-old Loung and her family from their comfortable life in the capital.

Loung, her six siblings and parents (her father a senior army officer in the now overthrown government) join the terrified mass exodus from the city and are taken deep into the countryside and coerced to join a new forced labour camp.  

Under the Khmer Rouge, the promotion of self-interest and capitalist or ‘Western’ ideology was prohibited, often punishable by execution, with Pol Pot and his army of adult and child soldiers seeking to reset Cambodia to “Year Zero,” turning the country into a utopian, agrarian communist society.

Scenes of Loung’s father’s execution in an unidentified mass grave, her young brother’s brutal beating for stealing extra food and the sight of civilians darting swathes of landmine-ridden land, reveal the brutality of life under the Khmer Rouge and Jolie’s use of aerial photography cleverly gives a sense of scale to the unfolding horror.

Where the film really prevails is the use of a child’s eye to document the terror. The film, which was co-produced with Cambodian film maker Rithy Panh and filmed in the local Khmer language, is unique in its use of Loung as the lens for which viewers experience events. With cameras often set to a child height, the film succeeds in putting a spotlight on the experiences and roles of children in conflict.

From at first being shocked that she has to dye her dress a murky uniform shade of grey to her desperate readiness to cook and eat a spider during army training months later, the evolution of Loung’s persona offers a poignant account of a child’s war.

While no definitive figures exist to say how many, it is believed the Khmer Rouge exploited thousands of children during its ascent and rule, with both boys and girls recruited to play various roles, including to fight Vietnamese forces. During the civil war that followed the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, there is substantial evidence that the Khmer Rouge, government forces and other armed groups continued to recruit and use child soldiers into the late 1990s.

The film, which also has an all-Cambodian cast, highlights the fact that, contrary to popular misconception, child soldiers can be both boys and girls, and aren’t just fighters. As depicted in the film, child soldiers typically perform a variety of roles in armed conflicts around the world, including as cooks, porters, look-outs and messengers, alongside combat roles.

Loung was able to escape the Khmer Rouge in 1979, fleeing in the middle of the night, and ultimately found safety in a refugee camp with her two surviving brothers and sister.

In 1980 after escaping Cambodia to Thailand, Loung , her brother Meng and his wife Eang, received sponsorship and emigrated to the US. Loung was 10-years-old when she arrived in Vermont. She went on to complete her high-school education and university degree.

Yet many of Cambodia’s former child soldiers remained, left to somehow rebuild their lives and reintegrate back into society. A $42m donor-assisted government demobilisation program started in 1999 but was suspended in 2003 after reported misuse of funds. 16,500 of a planned 31,500 soldiers were demobilised during the period. The majority were old, sick or disabled and the program did not include a specific remit for demobilising or reintegrating those under-18.

TPO Cambodia, a local NGO focused on mental health and psychosocial support services, has helped several former child recruits with rehabilitation in the past but a lack of funding means such programs have now stopped. 

Sotheara Chhim, a senior consultant psychiatrist with the organisaiton, says that mental health problems, alcohol abuse and unemployment were all likely common outcomes for many former child soldiers in the Khmer Rouge.

He believes some are probably still "trapped in the vicious cycle of trauma, violence and poverty," and a lack of government assistance over the years means many remain on the outskirts of Cambodian society. "I think they are marginalized from society because the lack of skills and proper demobilization," he adds.

In 2004, the country ratified OPAC and three years later endorsed the Paris Commitments to protect children from unlawful recruitment.

Loung returned to Cambodia for the first time in 1995 and today, she works as an activist in the US supporting victims of Cambodia’s war.

© Netflix