Labor Camps: January 1976 

To protect Khouy from conscription into the army, Pa and Ma arrange for him to marry Laine, a young woman from a nearby village. Neither Khouy nor Laine want to be married but both realize that it will help to keep them safe. The story of Davi, a beautiful teenage girl, clarifies why this is true for Laine. Davi is taken from her parents by soldiers, and, although she does return as promised, she is badly beaten, broken in body and spirit. Davi is one of many girls raped by the Khmer Rouge, Luong notes. Although they are protected from the army, Meng, Khouy, and Laine are sent to a labor camp. As rumors spread that the Youns, or Vietnamese army, plan to invade Cambodia, the soldiers announce that all teens must go to labor camps. A terrified Keav packs and departs. Another blow comes when Kim is dismissed from the chief’s service, further diminishing the Ung’s food supply. Luong’s hatred of the soldiers and the Angkar mounts because of the pain and injustice they inflict. 

New Year’s: April 1976 

Luong is almost six and thinks back to the New Year’s celebrations they had in Phnom Penh, noting that holidays are now forbidden. She recalls the food they ate and even dreams about it. The chapter demonstrates how hunger makes her every moment a torment, as she explains that she now is willing to eat things she would have previously rejected as disgusting, and how she counts each grain of rice, trying to make her meager rations last longer. Survival becomes Luong’s only goal as the smell of death hangs over the village. Luong recounts the fate of a particular family—Chong and her three children—to underscore the horrors of starvation. The children die in succession of hunger and, as a result, their mother slips into insanity. 

As hungry as they are, Luong learns that their fate could be worse. Pa has befriended the village chief and trades Ma’s jewelry for rice, providing them with extra food. Driven by her hunger, Luong steals from the family’s food supplies. She is overcome by guilt but explains that she was so hungry that she was unable to think about others. Although she does not admit what she’s done, Luong suffers from it, fighting constantly with Chou. After a particularly loud incident, Ma hits Luong, then Ma and Pa argue. The entire family is exhausted from hunger.  


The value of female beauty is introduced in the opening chapters of First They Killed My Father but, in these chapters, it is shown to be a source of danger. As with other values across the memoir, life under the Khmer Rouge inverts established norms and standards of Cambodian culture. In Phnom Penh, Luong noticed that attractive street vendors had more customers and explained that she understood herself to be pretty because of the way her mother’s friends talked about her. However, in Democratic Kampuchea, beautiful women, and even girls, are at risk of sexual assault and rape by Khmer Rouge soldiers. Luong communicates this clearly in the story of Davi.  

It is rare for Luong to name people from the villages where the family lives, so the use of a proper name underscores the importance of Davi’s story, both in terms of its message and the tragedy of what happens to her. Although Davi returns from the night she is forced to spend with the soldiers, she is completely changed by the incident. Even after her wounds heal, Davi stops speaking to anyone and people in the village avoid her, acting like she does not exist. Although Davi’s body recovers, it’s possible to argue that she does not survive the ordeal.  

By using Davi’s name in First They Killed My Father, Ung gives her a new form of survival. Sharing her story with readers, prevents the young woman from being ignored or forgotten.  

The Khmer Rouge soldiers are consistently shown to lack a moral compass, but their regime also degrades the morality of the people they oppress, including Luong. This is demonstrated most clearly when she steals the rice from her family. Even as she takes the food, she knows it is wrong. However, starvation has dulled her ability or willingness to consider the needs of others. Even though she is aware that the people she loves will have less to eat if she steals the rice, she is unable to stop herself. Readers are never given insight into thoughts of the Khmer Rouge soldiers, so whether or not they feel guilt remains unknown, but Luong clearly comprehends the seriousness of her actions. Her guilt is compounded by her belief that Pa knows that she took the rice, even though he does not confront her or reveal her crime. While she will later chide herself for being less generous than her siblings, she never again steals from her family. The event causes distance between Luong and those closest to her, causing her to become even more silent. This event and the related changes to Luong’s character must be understood as an effect of the Khmer Rouge regime.