Seng Ty was adopted from a Thai refugee camp by a US family in 1981 after they read his story in a Time magazine article. The 13-year-old – whose father was murdered and mother died of malnutrition – had managed to survive the Khmer Rouge’s labour camps and then make it alone to the Thai border. In the US, he became one of the human faces of the regime’s victims, sharing his experiences on the Phil Donahue Show and 60 Minutes. Now a 46-year-old middle-school teacher in Lowell, Massachusetts, he has just self-published his story of survival as a young boy in The Years of Zero: Coming of Age Under the Khmer Rouge. Will Jackson heard his story.
Why do you think you managed to survive under the Khmer Rouge when so many others didn’t?
During the Khmer Rouge time I decided I would rather die with a stomach full of food than let the Khmer Rouge kill me through starvation. At night I would sneak out and steal food and anything possible to eat and feed myself. That was my strategy. I was very lucky I didn’t get caught for that. Unfortunately, sometimes I tried to escape the orphanage camp, so that I could find a better life in a different area, but the Khmer Rouge caught me and beat me and tortured me. That happened a couple of times. So I wasn’t always so lucky.
Were you ever forced to be a soldier?
My mother taught me at a young age what is right and wrong. I saw some kids who took other people’s lives so that they could become leaders and so that they could carry guns and take other people’s lives. They did not trust me because I would rather take my own life than take other people’s lives. I knew that this is the wrong thing to do. That’s why I was beaten and was tortured many times.
Has writing the book helped your mental health and well-being?
It’s a part of my healing. I remember promising my mother that last night before she died that, no matter how long it would take or how difficult it was, I would someday write down what happened to share with other people so they would know. Today, I feel like I have fulfilled
Why did you decide to self-publish?
I submitted the book to publishers a couple of times but it was unsuccessful. Getting something published in the traditional way is very, very difficult these days. They looked at the manuscript and didn’t think there was a big enough market. [Eventually] I got this book published directly with Amazon.
What did it mean for you to be able to tell your story on Phil Donahue’s nationally televised talk show and on 60 Minutes in 1999?
I was very happy that people were interested in my story. When CBS’s 60 Minutes involved me, it says that the world is interested in what I had to say, where I had been and what happened to me. Phil Donahue gave me a chance to tell Americans that the Khmer Rouge regime was real. Most Americans didn’t believe us when we were in the refugee camp. The Khmer Rouge had held on to their UN seat years after their crimes. It was Phil who showed ordinary Americans that it did happen. An estimated 2.7 million people perished for nothing. I am grateful for the spotlight and for the fame of telling my story, but it is not the point. The point of retelling my story is to let others who are more fortunate know that war is within their reach – if they’re not careful, violence can become a way of life. Ignorance and the inability to think for oneself will create war and genocide. It has happened so many times again and again.
You were also involved in the Children of War Tour in the 1980s. Can you tell us a little about that?
In 1984, I was selected to be a part of Children of War Tour in the US cities. Children from all over the world came together to share their war experiences to students. The Children of War tour gave me an opportunity to be with other children my age, who had gone through horrific experiences of war. Their stories and retelling my own helped me to forgive and move on. I am not the only one who suffered. There are millions of children every day who are suffering today because of war and violence.
What are your plans for the book?
Yesterday, I received an email from a big agent in New York interested in taking the book to the next level. They are looking to get a big publisher to take the book worldwide. So I’m very excited about that.
Seng Ty’s The Years of Zero: Coming of Age Under the Khmer Rouge is available at amazon.com