63 pages 2 hours read

Loung Ung

First They Killed My Father

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2000

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Summary and Study Guide


First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers is a nonfiction memoir by the Cambodian author Loung Ung. A survivor of the 1970s Cambodian genocide under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, Ung wrote the story as an adult looking back on her childhood years between the ages of five and nine. Although some experts criticized the book over its historical accuracy, other critics lauded Ung for capturing the emotional truth of her experiences. (Tuon, Bunkong. “Inaccuracy and Testimonial Literature: The Case of Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 38, no. 3, 2013.) In 2017, Angelina Jolie directed a Golden Globe-nominated film adaptation of First They Killed My Father.


On a hot mid-April day in 1975, the Khmer Rouge invade Phnom Penh, forcing the Ungs and many other families to evacuate for fear of being killed. Loung, her parents, and her six siblings grab what they can, climb into their truck, and leave the city. Eventually, the gas runs out, forcing the family to walk for seven days to reach the home of their uncle in the village of Krang Truop, which is run by the Khmer Rouge. Due to the dangers of living in Krang Truop, the family leaves for another village but are unwelcome there too. Finally, in November of 1975, the family settles in a labor camp and village called Ro Leap, where they live for 18 months as the Khmer Rouge slowly starves and kills many Cambodians, including some of Ung’s family members.

The first Ung to die is Loung’s older sister Keav, who succumbs to food poisoning and dysentery in a filthy infirmary. Six months before her death, Keav was taken from her family to work in a camp for teenage girls. Loung’s father, known as Pa, is the next to die. In December of 1976, Khmer Rouge soldiers come to the Ungs’ hut and ask for help with their truck. They promise he will be back the next day, but he never returns.

Eventually, Loung is taken to another labor camp; this one is filled with strong girls, like her. While she is at the camp, Loung dreams that something happened to her mother. She quickly returns to Ro Leap where she learns that her mother and baby sister, Geak, were killed. This is all too much for Loung, who loses consciousness for three days. After returning to camp, the leader punishes her. Later, the camp is attacked by the Khmer Rouge who claim that the attacks are the work of the Vietnamese, whom the girls are taught to fear. When the attacks worsen, the girls are forced to leave, and Loung ends up in an infirmary. There, she coincidentally meets her remaining family.

As the story continues and the family reunites, their next goal is to get as far away from the Khmer Rouge as possible. Once the family finds safety with Vietnamese and Cambodian friends, they arrange for Loung and her older brother Meng to move to America. Loung and Meng end up in a refugee camp in Thailand, where they live an extremely poor existence until an American family sponsors them. After many years living successfully in America, Loung returns to Cambodia to reconnect with her remaining family members.

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