First They Killed My Father | Loung Ung

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


In this heart-wrenching and inspiring book summary of ‘First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers’, author Loung Ung shares her story of survival during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. The summary outlines the life of Loung Ung and her family, starting with their lives in Phnom Penh, where they enjoyed their high social status and privileges. Through shocking events, their world quickly turns upside down as the Khmer Rouge forces march into the city, demanding total compliance to a new, peasant way of life. For the family, this meant the disintegration of their previous lives and having to carefully guard their true identities in order to stay alive.

A Childhood Uprooted

Loung Ung’s life took a dramatic turn when the Khmer Rouge stormed into Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1975. This led to her family fleeing their comfortable middle-class life and facing an uncertain, harrowing future, along with countless other Cambodian families. Loung’s father’s high-ranking military position had provided them with relative luxury, living in an apartment block and enjoying modern conveniences. However, their peaceful life quickly disintegrated when the Communist rebels entered the city, demanding a new, simple way of life for all citizens, and forcing thousands of families to leave their homes.

It was an unremarkable day in 1975 when five-year-old Loung Ung’s life changed forever. Living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, her family enjoyed an affluent lifestyle due to her father’s high-ranking military status. They resided in a modern apartment block, a sharp contrast to the makeshift tents of the city’s poorer citizens. Loung and her siblings were privileged, attending school, visiting cinemas, dining out, and indulging in shopping trips.

However, on that fateful April day, Loung witnessed a swarm of soldiers ascending on the city from her family’s balcony. These soldiers belonged to the Khmer Rouge, a Communist rebel army that had waged a civil war against Cambodia’s democratic government. Their victory marked the beginning of a new era in Cambodian history, characterized by a desire for simplicity and a return to a peasant lifestyle.

With megaphones in hand, the soldiers ordered the city’s residents to evacuate immediately, threatening violence should their demands go unmet. Loung’s family sprang into action, hurriedly packing suitcases with their belongings and joining the throngs of people fleeing their homes. Together with her parents, two sisters, and three brothers, Loung left their comfortable life behind.

Crammed into an old truck, they were among the tens of thousands of families heading for an unknown, treacherous future, reshaping the landscape of their lives and the nation as a whole.

Survival Through Deceit

In their previous life, Ung’s family enjoyed a high social status in Phnom Penh. However, their lives were upended by the rise of the Khmer Rouge, forcing them to leave the city and hide their identities. Lying at a checkpoint about their former occupations saved their lives temporarily, but the threat persisted as they were city dwellers with a mixed ethnic heritage. The challenge of continuously hiding their true selves and avoiding persecution became their daily struggle.

Living in Phnom Penh, Ung’s family once enjoyed the privileges of their high social standing, but things changed dramatically when they had to flee the city. The brutal Khmer Rouge regime considered them enemies of the state, forcing the family into hiding to have any chance at survival.

While escaping, Ung’s family faced a crucial test at a Khmer Rouge checkpoint, where soldiers inquired about the fleeing civilians’ previous occupations. Those who admitted involvement with the overthrown government were led away – likely to their deaths. Fully aware of the danger, Ung’s father, a military official for the former government, lied and claimed to be a peasant farmer. Her mother followed suit, saying she sold clothes at a local market. Passing this test kept them alive, but marked the beginning of a life where they could never reveal their true selves.

The Khmer Rouge’s professed aim was to create a socialist agrarian society, with everyone living as equal peasant farmers. However, their concept of equality didn’t extend to everyone, especially those who weren’t ethnically Cambodian or had come from city backgrounds. Ung’s family had three reasons to fear persecution: her father’s former occupation, their city-dwelling past, and her mother’s Chinese-Cambodian ethnicity. Living with the constant threat of having their true identities exposed hung heavily over their heads, making survival an increasingly challenging endeavor.

Surviving a Ruthless Regime

The Khmer Rouge’s devastating impact on Cambodian society forced the author’s family and others to live as peasants in rural villages. Enduring near-starvation and backbreaking labor, they found themselves classified as third-class citizens in the regime’s cruel social hierarchy. Despite horrific conditions and struggles, the family managed to survive through sheer perseverance and resourcefulness.

The Khmer Rouge’s transformation of Cambodia sent shockwaves through the lives of countless citizens, including the author’s family. Uprooted from their previous way of life, they were now forced to become peasants in a remote village alongside 300 others. This relocation marked the beginning of a harrowing nightmare that felt inescapable.

The regime’s vision of an agrarian society demanded city dwellers to abandon urban life and move to rural villages where they were exploited mercilessly. There, newcomers were subjected to grueling labor from sunrise to sunset – planting rice, building dams, and digging trenches. However, the work was not rewarded with sustenance. With insufficient food, many fell victim to starvation or fatal illnesses within just five months.

The Khmer Rouge’s oppressive rule extended beyond physical suffering. It divided the country into three social classes, with the regime’s officials and military forming the first class; lifelong rural residents constituting the second; and city dwellers, particularly professionals and those affiliated with the former government, relegated to the lowest class. Now deemed third-class citizens, the author’s family, once respected professionals, were mercilessly oppressed.

Living as third-class citizens was a horrifying ordeal, as the author personally witnessed the unimaginable struggles of those in her village. Insufficient food distribution forced many recent arrivals to succumb to starvation. The author’s own family narrowly escaped the same fate due to their 11-year-old brother Kim’s resourcefulness; he managed to secure a job as a servant for the village chief, enduring daily abuse from the chief’s children. Kim’s brave sacrifices enabled the family to survive on leftover scraps, revealing the grim reality and resilience of those caught in the grip of a ruthless regime.

Shattered Family Under Khmer Rouge

Under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, joy and laughter vanished as fear gripped a rural village. Amidst the terror, a family found solace in their unity, but that bond was soon broken when soldiers took the teenage children to work in labor camps. Among them, the spirited Keav confidently assured her father of her survival, but her fate in a squalid, ill-equipped “hospital” proved otherwise.

Life in rural Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime was an existence plagued by fear and desolation, where laughter and idle chatter now carried the risk of being reported by watchful neighbors. Despite these dire circumstances, a family clung to the solace found in their precious moments together. However, this fleeting comfort was shattered when soldiers came to forcibly take the teenage boys and girls to work in camps, all in the name of the war against Vietnam.

Powerless, the family watched as 14-year-old Keav, the eldest sister, was torn away from them. With strength and optimism, she promised her father she would survive the ordeal, leaving her loved ones with nothing but fervent prayers in hopes that her words would prove true. But that parting moment marked the last time they would ever see her.

In the labor camp, Keav and other teenagers faced abhorrent conditions, working relentlessly with meager food, while filth and disease surrounded them. After six torturous months, dysentery struck Keav and she was sent to a place deemed a “hospital,” a place that bore none of the characteristics it claimed. The truth exposed the regime’s dark intentions—having executed all medical professionals, they forced ordinary people to masquerade as doctors and nurses without any access to medicine.

In the end, Keav’s tragic fate was sealed. As she lay in that sham of a hospital, dirty and forsaken, her light faded, and death claimed her. And with that, an innocent, vibrant spirit was forever lost, leaving her family broken and grieving in a land ruled by fear and anguish.

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