‘I misplaced all of them’: a household’s sole survivor recollects their sluggish loss of life below Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge

‘I misplaced all of them’: a household’s sole survivor recollects their sluggish loss of life below Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge

Seang M Seng nonetheless remembers the empty, silent roads he handed by way of greater than 40 years in the past as he was pushed away by the Khmer Rouge to western Cambodia. It was 1975, Pol Pot’s regime had just lately taken energy and was forcing 2 million folks to depart their properties within the capital, Phnom Penh.

They had been being taken to communal farms and rural camps as the brand new regime started its disastrous and brutal mission to show Cambodia again to “12 months Zero” and create a peasant utopia.

In complete, 24 members of Seng’s household had been taken away with him in 1975. Solely he survived.

It was a mixture of utmost meals deprivation and gruelling pressured labour that claimed the lives of his family, and plenty of others who had been taken to the identical space in Pursat province.

“You [will have] heard within the information that the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed folks by hitting their head with a hoe, or hurling the youngsters on to tree trunks to not waste their bullets. However to me, the vast majority of the folks in these days died of hunger,” he says.

Terrified Cambodians stream into Phnom Penh because the Khmer Rouge surrounded the capital in April 1975. Town fell the subsequent day. {Photograph}: Roland Neveu/LightRocket/Getty

Seng, who went on to change into a health care provider and now lives within the US, has since written in regards to the horrors he and others confronted in his e book, Ravenous Season: One Particular person’s Story. On Thursday, Cambodia’s UN-backed tribunal for the Khmer Rouge upheld a genocide conviction in opposition to the regime’s final surviving chief, Khieu Samphan, the ultimate judgment the court docket is anticipated to make.

Had such judgments introduced any solace? “I feel it is extremely essential for the world to know what occurred in Cambodia in these days and I applaud those that labored very arduous to convey Khieu Samphan to justice. Nevertheless, his destiny is not going to change something for me,” says Seng.

“I by no means imagined I’d lose my household. I misplaced all of them.”

Seng, who was a 24-year-old medical pupil on the time he was taken away, spent the times ploughing rice fields. There have been no cows, in order that they used hoes. “After a number of hours on the primary day, my hand was blistered,” he says.

Twice a day, a small tin of rice could be cut up between 10 folks. Lots of people ate leaves, rats, bugs or snakes to remain alive.

A smiling grey-haired man at a desk
Dr Seang Seng, who was a 24-year-old medical pupil when he was taken away by the Khmer Rouge. {Photograph}: Seang Seng

Seng’s youngest niece was the primary in his household to die after her mom ran out of breastmilk. She had been born simply a few months earlier in Phnom Penh. After that, one in every of Seng’s uncles died.

The deterioration of his different family’ well being was stark. His father’s abdomen shrank and disappeared inside a number of months. His two aunts, who in regular occasions regarded completely different, started to resemble each other. After they went to a hospital close to the farm – there was no hope of correct remedy there, it was the place the place folks would go to die – they regarded like twins: simply pores and skin and bones.

“Life is sort of a battery. It simply slowly drains,” says Seng, “when the battery ran out, you’d simply die abruptly.”

There have been 5 villages within the space the place Seng was taken, with about 30,000 folks in complete in 1975. “When hunger hit arduous in 1976, the quantity diminished from 30,000 to three,000,” he says.

The hunger they had been subjected to was compounded by an array of different deprivations. “The situation that we lived in [had] no clear water, no rest room, folks squatting all over the place,” he says.

Nor was there actual shelter; households had been pressured to construct their very own huts upon arrival and his household was pressured to maneuver a number of occasions. In case you had been despatched to work additional out of your ordinary shelter, then you definitely would keep in a hammock hung from a tree.

Seng’s uncle, additionally a medical pupil, died after he sustained a small wound on his leg, simply months after arriving. With no meals, it proved deadly.

By the top of 1976, solely Seng and one in every of his youthful sisters had been nonetheless alive.

After labouring for a number of extra months, Seng realised that he was unlikely to outlive for much longer. He cast a letter to the close by hospital, saying that he had been despatched from the fields and was not capable of work.

Exhausted, he lay nonetheless, too weak to even swipe flies from his face. His thoughts, although, was nonetheless energetic, he says.

“We had been conscious of the whole lot round us. I keep in mind asking myself: what has occurred to all of the journalists, what occurred to all of the foreigners? Nobody is seeing us.

The cover of the book by Seang M Seng.
The harrowing story of Seang Seng’s torment and survival below the Khmer Rouge. {Photograph}: Seang Seng

“You sit there staring blankly, figuring out that your time will finish quickly,” he recollects. “It’s devastating.”

Seng recovered some power and started to do varied jobs on the hospital, first fetching wooden for the kitchen workers, and later serving to the Khmer Rouge dump the our bodies of those that died on the hospital every day in a close-by subject. Twelve our bodies might be carried directly on a cart; some days he would make a number of journeys to dump corpses. The hospital was merely a spot the place the dying had been exchanged for the useless, he says.

By way of varied jobs within the hospital, Seng was capable of show his dedication to the Khmer Rouge’s “revolution” and get nearer to the kitchen, the place he may sneak some rice from the cooking pot. “Initially, I had burns and blisters all inside my mouth as a result of the porridge was boiling, however amazingly after some time my physique turned slightly bit extra resistant,” he recollects.

He ate spoonfuls from the pot again and again. The hospital boss, who had taken pity on him, despatched him to work as a carpenter, a much less gruelling function than engaged on the land.

Seng is haunted no longer by the bodily impression of his experiences, however by the psychological trauma of dropping his total household. “Generally [I feel] the guilt of being the survivor. What I imply by that’s I at all times ask myself, ‘did I do sufficient to assist my household?’”

He remembers his four-year-old nephew who turned sick with diarrhoea after they had been out fetching water someday. The kid died shortly afterwards. “Generally you ask your self, ‘if I had not taken him out, what would have occurred to him?’”

He recollects his 14-year-old sister, who advised him she not needed to work within the hospital, though a place like that was arduous to acquire. She didn’t need to stick with members of the Khmer Rouge, and would relatively go together with her group to dig a canal. “Was I robust sufficient to information her? You don’t know at these occasions. That is solely whenever you look again.”

Writing about his experiences, and publishing his memoir, Ravenous Season: One Particular person’s Story, was distressing, but the method offered some launch. Many readers, particularly youthful Cambodians whose mother and father have felt unable to share their tales, have appreciated the e book.

For Seng, too, the method of documenting what occurred has additionally proved therapeutic. He hopes that it additionally carries a message of hope: that even after essentially the most horrible of tragedies, it’s doable to rebuild life.

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