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First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers
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First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers

4.6 125
by Loung Ung

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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


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.

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.|
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

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
P.S. Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 10.86(h) x 0.71(d)
920L (what's this?)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

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.

What People are Saying About This

Patrick Leahy
In this gripping narrative, Loung Ung describes the unfathomable evil that engulfed Cambodia during her childhood, the courage that enabled her to survive, and the determination that has made her an eloquent voice for peace and justice in Cambodia. It is a tour-de-force that strengthened our resolve to prevent and punish crimes against humanity.
— U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, Congressional Leader on Human Rights and a Global Ban on Land Mines
Dith Tran
Dith Tran, whose work and life is portrayed in the award winning movie, The Killing Fields
Loung has written an eloquent and powerful narrative as a young witness to the Khmer Rouge atrocities. This is an important story that will have a dramatic impact on today's readers and inform generations to come.
Queen Noor
This is a story of triumph of a child's interminable spirit over the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge over a culture where children are trained to become killing machines. Loung's subsequent campaign against land mines is a result of witnessing first hand how her famished neighbors, after dodging soldier's bullets, risked their lives to traverse unmapped mine fields in search of food. Despite the heartache, I could not put the book down until I reached the end. Meeting Loung in person made me reaffirm my admiration for her.
Lucy Grealy
This is a harrowing, compelling story. Evoking a child's voice and viewpoint, Ung has written a book filled with vivid and unforgettable details. I lost a night's sleep to this book because I literally could not put it down, and even when I finally did, I lost another night's sleep just from the sheer, echoing power of it.
— (Lucy Grealy, author of Autobiography of a Face)
Helen Prejean
Despite the tragedy all around her, this scrappy kid struggles for life and beats the odds. I thought young Ung's would make me sad, but this funky child warrior carried me with her in her courageous quest for life. Reading these pages has strengthened me in my own struggle to disarm the powers of violence in this world.
— Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking
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

Meet the Author

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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First They Killed My Father 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 125 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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
ppam More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
one of the most powerful books i've read. my favorite book ever.
AlexandraRamona More than 1 year ago
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.
Teganelizabeths More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!!)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Eye opening. Cleverly written
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A shocking true story.
J-C59 More than 1 year ago
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.
Natalie Beal More than 1 year ago
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!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amazing story through the eyes of a young little girl. A must read that will change your life.
apsara198x More than 1 year ago
this book was amazing
heaathaa2013 More than 1 year ago
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.
TiBookChatter More than 1 year ago
The Rest of It: Ung's tale begins in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Once known at "the pearl of Aisa", Phnom Penh is the home of the Ung family which consists of her mother and father, and her siblings, Meng, Khouy, Keav, Kim, Chou, Loung (the author) and Geak. Life in Phnom Penh is quite pleasant for Loung. Her father (Pa) works for the government and is highly respected in the community. Due to his class standing, they live in a nice house and Loung's mother (Ma), does not need to work. However, as the Khmer Rouge invade Cambodia, the Ung family is forced to leave their home. This is Loung's story of what happened to them on their way to Thailand. As you can imagine, this is a very tough story to read. Loung is so young when her family is forced to move. She is only five-year's old. Caring for her younger siblings and sometimes even the older ones, must have been very tough for her. As her family makes their way from one work camp to another, their fight to stay alive becomes more difficult as food rations dwindle, and violence abounds all around them. This is from page 149/50 of the paperback. Loung is referring to her younger sister's emaciated body: My eyes stay on Geak. She does not talk anymore. She is so thin it is as if her body is eating itself up. Her skin is pale yellow, her teeth rotten or missing. Still she is beautiful because she is good and pure. Looking at her makes me want to die inside. Ung's story is quite compelling. Her relationship with her father comes through as being strong and solid, so much so, that when the soldiers take him away, her world falls down around her. Since it is impossible to know exactly what happened to her father, she fills in the gaps with visions she has of the event. These visions seem plausible and serve as closure for her, and I found them to be quite effective. She uses this technique again towards the end of the story and although I saw it coming, it was just as effective and shook me to the core. What was particularly poignant for me, were her memories of life in Phnom Penh. The clothes they wore, the food they ate. She never realized how good she had it until all of it was taken away. Those moments seemed so small to her at the time, but in reflection, they end up being the cement that holds her together. My book club chose this book for May. We meet to discuss it next week. I didn't know too much about the Cambodian Genocide before reading it. Although it is a tough read and hard to stomach at times (it took me a really long time to finish), I am glad I read it. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about this topic.
3tzmom More than 1 year ago
I was very moved by her story. I wasn't able to put this book down as I read one disturbing image after another. I did lose sleep over her story as it distrubed and touched me. It is not for those who like light and happy books. You will learn a lot about the History of Cambodia and human endurance.
BiglouVirginian More than 1 year ago
This is one of the most insightful memoirs I have ever read. The life of this young girl was so totally transformed from one of peaceful, joyous existence to one of hell on earth that it tugs at your heart. She is also one of the gutsiest individuals that I have become inspired by. Her determination and internal strength to fight for survival are absolutely amazing. This tale provided a real revelation to me about a period in history that totally escaped me and was never adequately covered in the mass media.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is wonderful. It opened my eyes to a lot of things that go on in Cambodia. Loung Ung writes wonderfully and explains everything in such detail. I would read this book over and over again. Some parts even made me cry because of the evils this young girl had to endure in her home country. This book is very enlightening and touching. I recommend it to everyone!
TimP More than 1 year ago
This is an amazing thriller with Ung and her family and them dealing with adversity throughout the Halocaust. Her family was hiding from all the soldiers that was sourrounding her city, and throughout her small city. Once her family is discovered they take her father from her, and tell her that he will return the next morning. But yet many days go past and yet still no return, this is one example of adversity that Ung and all of her family faces. Later on in the book 2 or her six siblings were eventually murdered and tooken to the concetration camp as with the rest of the family, and theirs escapes. He father especially helped Ung survive the war, and along with the rest of the family explaining the dangers of the war and the other dangerous things. She spent four years trying to escape from the war, and then finally Ung and her brother escape to Thyland and eventually to the U.S. This is an amazing thiller at times and yet very tense settings. This is a very serious book, and a very hard read, but yet very worth it.