Book Review – The Years of Zero
Most of us are only able to grasp stories of collective, state-sponsored killings intangibly. We read about the horrors of torture, mass graves and forced labor camps in the media, and though we are saddened and dismayed, we can easily set aside the newspaper and online accounts, put the stories behind us and continue with our lives.
But for one man, and many others of Cambodian descent living in the Merrimack Valley, genocide is all too real.
Seng Ty, a Lowell resident and a guidance counselor at the city’s Kathryn P. Stoklosa Middle School, was just 7 years old when the Khmer Rouge — the brutal, bloodthirsty Maoist regime led by dictator Pol Pot — invaded Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on April 17, 1975. In his memoir, “The Years of Zero: Coming of Age Under the Khmer Rouge,” Ty, the youngest of 11 children, recounts his family’s nightmarish journey, first forced from its middle-class home in Phnom Penh and then made to march for days in blistering heat, without water or food, into a terrible new world of violence, death, starvation and terror.
Inspired by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China, the Khmer Rouge’s goal was to bring Cambodia back to “year zero” in an attempt to establish a “pure” socialist agrarian society. Enemies of Angkar, or “the organization,” included anyone who had a formal education, artists, writers; anyone, in fact, who could read or write. Ty’s father, a physician, was beaten to death. With the exception of one brother who died from overwork and malnutrition, Ty’s siblings were sent to distant labor camps. His mother starved to death.
An orphan surrounded by unburied bodies and the mass graves known as the “killing fields,” Ty endured a series of Khmer Rouge orphanages, where he was forced to work in the rice fields during the day, and also at night when the moon was bright enough. He risked beatings and torture to “steal” frogs, mice and any other wild food he could find.
After the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in December 1978, Ty lived by his wits on the streets of Phnom Penh, eventually finding his way to the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand. There, Ty was interviewed by American journalist Roger Rosenblatt. He was later featured in Rosenblatt’s 1982 Time magazine article, “Children of War.”
At 14, Ty was adopted by an Amherst, Mass., family that had seen the Time article. He learned English, earned a degree in education from UMass Amherst, and today gives talks about his experiences in hopes of making young people aware of what happened in Cambodia so that nothing like it will ever happen again.
The Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University estimates that the Khmer Rouge exterminated 21 percent of the country’s population, about 1.7 million people, from 1975 to 1979. Some estimates are much higher. But the spirit of Cambodia, its peaceful, fertile rice fields and its generous people live on in Ty’s heartfelt, carefully measured prose. In what will surely become an important primary source, “The Years of Zero” offers eternal life to the Khmer Rouge’s victims, and in its own all-too-human way, urges us to consider the consequences of turning our backs on evil.
The Years of Zero: Coming of Age Under the Khmer Rouge
By Seng Ty
CreateSpace Independent Publishing