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Cambodian children in a Khmer Rouge work camp.
Cambodian children in a Khmer Rouge work camp. THE DOCUMENTATION CENTER OF CAMBODIA

Surviving the years of genocide

Seng Ty was only seven years old when he and his family were plunged into a nightmare of despair and death under the murderous regime of the Khmer Rouge

The youngest of a large, middle-class family living in Kampong Speu, Seng Ty was seven years old in April 1975 when the black clad Khmer Rouge forced him and his family to leave their home and walk into a nightmare.

The Years of Zero: Coming of Age under the Khmer Rouge is Seng’s story of how he survived unbearable tragedy and misfortune through a combination of luck and daring before eventually escaping Cambodia to lead a new life in the US.

Much of the book is hard going. Misery follows misery as the communists seize power and force the population to toil in the countryside. After a brief and relatively benign sojourn in a jungle village of rural “old people” about 80 kilometres from their home, Seng’s family of urban “new people” are sent north-east on a hellish train journey to Battambang province.

Author Seng Ty.
Author Seng Ty. PHOTOGRAPHS SUPPLIED BY JAMES HIGGINS

There, his father is executed and his mother, two brothers and a sister die of malnutrition. His eldest siblings are taken away to join youth work teams. Left alone, Seng ends up in a work camp for orphans.

Again and again, he makes friends only to see them die shortly after. A young boy his age, one of the “old people” from the jungle village where the family settle briefly just after the Khmer Rouge takeover, is bitten by a snake. Another, a fellow orphan with whom he shares stolen food, succumbs to malnutrition. Then a third, who claims to be a member of the royal family, is tortured and beaten to death for stealing rice.

There are moments of humanity. After Seng’s mother dies, an elderly neighbour helps him and his brother, ordering a villager to bury her body. She later gives Seng a place to stay. And an uncharacteristic display of generosity on the part of the Khmer Rouge cadres see him allowed to keep his mother’s kettle, which he uses to boil up stolen rice, crabs and snails, the occasional baby mouse and anything else he can get his hand on.

By the time the Vietnamese liberate most of the country in 1979, Seng is transformed. No longer a soft, coddled child, he has become tough and resolutely self-reliant. Despite being reunited with three of his elder siblings, he decides to go it alone on the streets of Phnom Penh before once again braving grave danger to reach a refugee camp on the Thai border.

It’s there that he is interviewed by US journalist Roger Rosenblatt and featured in TIME magazine. A US family read the article and, charmed by Seng’s soulful eyes and peaceful nature, sponsor him to join them in Massachusetts.

In the final chapters, he struggles as he encounters Western technology and culture for the first time. He has a frightening encounter with a flushing toilet on the flight over to the US and when he gets there he craves rice. In fact, the smell of spaghetti bolognese makes him retch. He can’t understand why his new family would leave their comfortable home to camp in the wild. Most of all, he has to learn to trust again after living under the Khmer Rouge’s murderous rule.

Today, Seng is a high school guidance counsellor in Massachusetts. He ended up self-publishing The Years of Zero, after the publishers he approached didn’t feel the book market needed another Khmer Rouge survival story.

As much for his own healing process as anything else, Seng was determined to get the story out. It’s a good thing he did. The result is not only an engaging account of life during Democractic Kampuchea, but it’s the record of a young man who triumphed, in his own way, over the genocidal regime that took so much from him.

The Years of Zero is available at Amazon.com

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