First They Killed My Father is Loung Ung’s unflinching first-person account of the 1975 to 1979 Cambodian Genocide, during which the Khmer Rouge regime killed an estimated two million citizens through forced labor, starvation, and indiscriminate execution. Loung is just five years old when the Khmer Rouge takes control of the country, but she makes it through its reign of terror through a combination of luck, personal strength, and the unwavering support of her family. In her author’s note preceding the text, Ung calls her memoir “a story of survival.” Indeed, Ung’s account is a testament to both human resilience and the sacrifices people make in the name of survival when faced with horrific violence.
Loung begins her story by discussing her family’s comfortable middle-class life in Phnom Penh, highlighting how ill-prepared they are for life under the Khmer Rouge. With a maid to cook and clean for them, the Ungs have “more leisure time” than many families in Phnom Penh, and Loung doesn’t have to do “any chores.” Loung later notes that her mother, whom she refers to as Ma, grew up in a similarly privileged environment and is unused to having to do any sort of physical labor. Upon the Khmer Rouge’s takeover of the city, however, the Ungs are thrust into a life of extreme hardship: they must leave every comfort behind and walk for seven days to a poor village, where even children engage in strenuous labor under the constant threat of punishment or even death. By emphasizing the middle-class comfort of her life in Phnom Penh, Loung’s narrative highlights the difficulties of life under Khmer Rouge. At the same time, by presenting her family as an unexceptional Cambodian family, she implies that the strength her family showed in the face of hardship was also unexceptional. Her story reflects the experience of many Cambodians who lived through the genocide—and, as such, serves as a broader testament to the strength of the human will to survive.
The will to live must be stronger than everything else to make it under the Khmer Rouge, and Loung makes repeated reference to the sacrifices and compromises her family makes to survive the terror of the new regime. When the Angkar (that is, the new government) reduces food rations to near-nonexistence, the Ungs readily eat anything they can find to stave off starvation—from raw rabbit and rotten leaves, to rat tails, brains, and blood. Loung notes that she would have “thrown up” such things in the past, but “surviving for another day has become the most important thing” to her. Like disgust, personal pride has no place under the new government. Loung’s father, whom she calls Pa, readily shows meek respect for their captors and orders his family to obey the Khmer Rouge no matter what if they want to live. He demands that they forget Phnom Penh, and instead focus their energy on surviving their current situation. Kim, Loung’s ten-year-old brother, goes to work for a village chief and endures consistent physical abuse at his hands for the sake of obtaining leftover food for the family. Though Ma and Pa look at Kim’s bruises with shame, they know the family would die without the food he brings home, so they swallow their discomfort.
Because Pa worked for the now toppled Lon Nol government, Loung’s family must hide their identities and move between villages to avoid being recognized. At first Loung cannot understand why their neighbors would ever turn on them, but Pa knows that fear and hunger can quickly eclipse people’s sense of loyalty and compassion. Similarly, although Loung judged thieves as lazy and worthless when she was a “rich and spoiled” child in Phnom Penh, experiencing extreme hunger under the Khmer Rouge forces her to accept that sometimes people have “to steal to survive.” Loung herself does this when she steals rice from her family’s hidden stash and later from a dying old woman. Loung grapples with immense guilt about these actions for the rest of her life, because, of course, their significance extends beyond a few handfuls of grain; the struggle for survival reveals both the impressive depths of human strength and the desperate lengths to which people will go in order to live one more day.
Above all, Loung’s story suggests that survival is about sacrifice. To live through the Khmer Rouge, Loung must give up her identity, pretending instead to be a peasant from the countryside; she must give up her voice, not speaking for fear of giving away her family’s true background; and she must give up her right to grieve, pretending that her family members’ deaths do not detract from her devotion to the Angkar. This final renunciation proves the most difficult. When Loung’s fourteen-year-old sister Keav dies from dysentery after being sent to a work camp, Pa demands they “forget” Keav’s death. Trapped by a regime that defines human value by productivity, lingering on sadness would only hurt the Ungs’ chances of living another day. “We have to save our strength to go on,” Pa says, adding, “it is the only way we will survive.”
Loung repeatedly echoes this notion—that to dwell on sadness would make her want to stop living. Nurturing her anger, however, grants her strength to continue. After Pa dies, Loung reflects that the Angkar has made her “hate so deeply” that she wants to “destroy and kill.” She feeds her rage by imagining “bloody images of Pol Pot's slain body being dragged in the dirt.” She says, “My hate empowers and scares me, for with hate in my heart I have no room for sadness. Sadness makes me want to die inside … Rage makes me want to survive and live so that I may kill.” Loung’s story makes clear that while the will to live can overcome nearly every other desire, it also serves as fuel for darker emotions like hatred and anger. The Khmer Rouge create a world in which survival depends on being able to hide or whittle away the things that constitute one’s humanity. Loung’s story is thus not simply one of the indomitability of the human spirit, but also of the impossible choices people must make to survive unspeakable cruelty.
The Price of Survival ThemeTracker
The Price of Survival Quotes in First They Killed My Father
"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.
The explosion from the bomb in our trashcan knocked down the walls of our kitchen, but luckily no one was hurt. The police never found out who put the bomb there. My heart is sick at the thought that someone actually tried to hurt Pa. If only these new people in the city could understand that Pa is a very nice man, someone who's always willing to help others, they would not want to hurt him.
“The Khmer Rouge are executing people perceived to be a threat against the Angkar. This new country has no law or order. City people are killed for no reason. Anyone can be viewed as a threat to the Angkar—former civil servants, monks, doctors, nurses, artists, teachers, students—even people who wear glasses, as the soldiers view this as a sign of intelligence. Anyone the Khmer Rouge believes has the power to lead a rebellion will be killed. We have to be extremely careful, but if we keep moving to different villages, we may stay safe.”
"Capitalists should be shot and killed," someone yells from the crowd, glaring at us. Another villager walks over and spits at Pa's feet. Pa's shoulders droop low as he holds his palms together in a gesture of greeting. I cower at the edge of the truck, my heart beating wildly, afraid to get off. Fearing that they might spit at me, I avoid their eyes. They look very mean, like hungry tigers ready to pounce on us. Their black eyes stare at me, full of contempt. I don’t understand why they are looking at me as if I am a strange animal, when in reality we look very much the same.
My first red dress, the one Ma made for me for the New Year's celebration. I remember Ma taking my measurements, holding the soft chiffon cloth against my body, and asking me if I liked it. "The color looks so pretty on you," she said, "and the chiffon material will keep you cool." Ma made three identical dresses for Chou, Geak, and me. ... I grind my teeth so hard the pain in my throat moves up to my temples. My hands clench in fists; I continue to stare at my dress. I do not see the soldier's hand reach into his pocket and retrieve from it a box of matches. I do not hear his fingers strike a match against the side of the box. The next thing I know the pile of clothes bursts into flames and my red dress melts like plastic in the fire.
As much as I want to become a thief myself, I do not have the courage to do it. It seems a lifetime ago when I was rich and spoiled in Phnom Penh, when children stole from me and I did not care. I could afford to be stolen from, but I judged them harshly for doing so. I thought thieves were worthless, too lazy to work for what they wanted. I understand now that they had to steal to survive.
"It was me, Pa!" my mind screams out. "I stole from the family. I am sorry!" But I say nothing and do not confess to the crime. The guilt weighs heavily on me. I had gotten up in the middle of the night and stolen the rice. I wish I had been still in between the sleeping and waking worlds when I did it, but that is not true. I knew exactly what I was doing when I stole the handful of rice from my family. My hunger was so strong that I did not think of the consequences of my actions. I stepped over the others' sleeping bodies to get to the container. With my heart pounding, I slowly lifted off the top. My hand reached in and took out a handful of uncooked rice and quickly shoved it into my hungry mouth before anyone woke and made me put it back.
I am a kid, not even seven years old, but somehow I will kill Pol Pot. I don’t know him, yet I am certain he is the fattest, slimiest snake on earth. I am convinced that there is a monster living inside his body. He will die a painful, agonizing death, and I pray that I will play a part in it. I despise Pol Pot for making me hate so deeply. My hate empowers and scares me, for with hate in my heart I have no room for sadness. Sadness makes me want to die inside. Sadness makes me want to kill myself to escape the hopelessness of my life. Rage makes me want to survive and live so that I may kill. I feed my rage with bloody images of Pol Pot's slain body being dragged in the dirt.
By taking her food I have helped kill her. But I cannot return the rice. I lift it to my lips as salty tears drip into my throat. The hard rice scrapes down in a dry lump, thus I put a marker on the old woman's grave.
One by one, people return to their homes, leaving me standing there alone, staring at the corpse. My mind plays back images of my parents' and sister's murders. Again my heart tears open as I stand there and wonder how they died. Quickly, I push the sadness away. The slumped over corpse reminds me of Pithy in her mother’s arms. Pithy’s head bled in much the same way. His death will not bring any of them back.