First They Killed My Father: My Family's Story

Sunday, September 17, 2017

First They Killed My Father, novel by Loung Ung

I bought this book maybe 7 or 8 years ago and found out that I didn't have the courage to read it. This book, 'First they Killed My Father' details how Pol Pot's regime affected 5 year old Loung's life from 1975 to 1979 in Cambodia.
Back then I was scared to read it because I knew this account was also my my mom, aunts, uncles and grandma's story and I didn't want to be confronted by the sadness and horror they faced. But I'm 30 years old now and I told myself I shouldn't be afraid.
I once asked my mom her story when I was in year 10 for history class. My mom gave me a basic version and I knew she didn't want to go into that much detail. It was hard for her to relive the memories, often ending a sentence with sad sigh. It was hard for me to hear it too.
When I finally read this book, I found so many similarities in Luong's story and my mom's.
In 1975, the Teng family also lived in Phnom Penh as middle class in a house with servants, plenty of food and leisure time. My mom's father was serving in the military in the airforce and was highly regarded in the community.
Cambodia was in the middle of a civil war and eventually the Khmer Rouge overthrew the government by sheer force. The Khmer Rouge wanted to make Cambodia great again by demolishing classes, banning religion, the arts and all education. They wanted to teach those Cambodians that their captalist ways were evil and to go back to the agricultural life. Thus, Cambodia will prosper and become grande once again.
In April 1975 just after Cambodia New Year, the entire city of Phnom Penh were forced out of their homes by the Khmer Rouge soilders. They forced their way into homes and those who refused were shot dead on the spot. The people of Phnom Penh were now enemies, traitors, prisoners.My family, and thousands more were made to walk at least eight days from the city to the rice paddies. Everyone had only what they could gather in a short time. Luckily my grandmother had some spare rice and fish to bring. My mom witnessed the hospitalised and elderly also forced to make this journey, often separated from family due to the chaos. Many died before they reached their destination. 
During their journey, the Teng family were instructed by their father to act dumb and pretend they were not educated. To not talk about their city lives in fear of being caught out by the Khmer Rouge - they would've marked them as traitors to the new Angkar law and shot dead. My mom was only 18 years old and nearly graduated from high school. From then on she was to pretend she was a uneducated peasant from the countryside.My family eventually were allocated to a labour camp where most worked from sunrise to sunset planting and harvesting rice in the rice fields. The family occupied a hut with their bowls, black pants, shirt and red scarf. My mom hid her gold, family photos and family possessions by sewing them inside their old clothes they kept under the bed. The soilders were always watching.They grew so much rice. However, so little food were rationed to the "city people" (aka traitors). The city people worked alongside true countryside people and were treated unfairly.
Only a rice ball or congee with 8 grains of rice and salted fish were fed to the "traitors" twice a day. Many died from starvation as the Angkar government kept reducing their portions. Many died from disease as the Khmer Rouge murdered doctors and nurses because they were educated. Many died as the Khmer Rouge killed anyone they suspected supported the old government; or even those who wore glasses as they viewed them to be "educated". Thousands of monks, students, dancers and singers were killed too.
My mom lived in the camp for four years. She kept her head down and worked hard. She ate bugs and sometimes stole corn from nearby fields. But everyone was slowly starving to death.
After a few months, her father was 'found out' and taken away by the Khmer Rouge soldiers. Someone must've have recognised him from being from the old government army. He was killed and most likely thrown into a mass grave (aka "The Killing Fields"). It was often soldiers blindfolded their prisoners, forced them onto their knees and shot them in the head at close range. I knew my mom's two older sisters were also killed during the regime. 
After years of living in the labour camps, starved and living in fear of being caught out, the Vietnamese army finally invaded Cambodia and started to bomb random labour camps. The Khmer Rogue tried to fight them off but the military tanks were no match.
The Cambodians were afraid but finally liberated. My mom would've been approximately 21 years old.
When they found the chance, my family escaped their camp and ran for their lives to the jungles. They walked a long time risking being caught and trying to not step on land mines. They were lost, hungry, and scared yet they reached the Thai border where they finally reached a refugee camp. They did not dare to return to Phnom Penh, their old home.
They waited months for sponsors, and though they were liberated, my family lived in fear that the Khmer Rouge will find them. My grandmother, mom, her oldest sister, her two younger sisters and two older brothers were now refugees. They finally got processed but were separated. Some were sent to Australia, some to New Zealand and France. In the end, a staggering 2 million Cambodians died during that four year regime.There's so much more detail to this story. But for those that are just like me, lucky to have been raised in countries free from war, who can't connect to what their parents have been through because they don't want to prod their parents for their own terrible memories, please read this book.
I've visited Cambodia back in 2008 and visited the now prosperous Phnom Penh and areas such as Pursat and Battabong. With those memories in mind I can imagine what the people of Cambodia went through. This book will put your life into perspective and also appreciate your elders - how they have learnt to rise from this and to continue on with their lives. When I was my mom's age I had just finished year 11 or 12 and I remember complaining that the HSC was so hard. I wouldn't have had half the strength my mom and family had to survive what they went through.
My mom now has a single photo of her father hanging in front of our Buddhist shrine, next to a photo of her mother, who have now passed away. She often leaves fruit offerings and burns incense to know she is still thinking of them.
Thank you Loung for her brave account, I am sorry you lost your father, mother, oldest and youngest sister. Your book gives a voice to the survivors and to the murdered. I hope that Angelina's account does your story justice.
And thank you to my family for continuously striving to give me, my sister and my cousins luckier lives. Thank you.


  1. Very well written! Breaks my heart to hear it though <3

  2. Oh this sounds like a heavy book
    With a very hard topic

  3. What a touching story! Would love to get hold of this book.


Thank you all for your comments, I appreciate the support!
Don't forget to follow me on Instagram
x Natalie

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...