A Khmer Rouge survivor’s memories: Too horrific to recall, too important to forget

Dr. Seang Seng, a survivor of Cambodia's 'killing fields' will share his painful story with...
Dr. Seang Seng, a survivor of Cambodia's 'killing fields' will share his painful story with donors at the John A. Burns School of Medicine.(HNN (custom credit))
Published: Mar. 5, 2019 at 8:03 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Decades ago, as the Khmer Rouge tightened its grip across Cambodia, more than one million people were killed and buried at locations that later became infamously known as the Cambodian “killing fields.”

One of the men who escaped that brutal regime — a man who would later earn his medical degree at the University of Hawaii — is back in the islands to share the powerful story of his own survival.

Dr. Seang Seng was a 24-year-old medical student when the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975.

As were millions of others, Seng was taken to a labor camp in the countryside with 19 relatives, including his parents, grandparents and 5 sisters.

“They barely feed you, and they mainly just force you to work as hard as you could,” said Seng.

As weeks turned into months, Seng lost family members one by one. His newborn niece was the first to pass away.

“My sister ran out of milk because of starvation, so therefore there’s nothing to feed the baby, and the baby died,” he said.

His recollections are painful to listen to.

An uncle who was injured at one of the camps died because the wound festered — Seng says he eventually lost the will to live — and he lost track of time after the death of one of his sisters on Christmas Day 1975.

“They tied my sister up to inform the rest that this is what you get if you’re not listening,” he tearfully recalled.

Even though he was weak, Seng says he helped the Khmer Rouge bury the dead in exchange for extra food. The original population at his camp was 30,000; it eventually dwindled down to just 3,000 people.

“We have probably 10 to 20 dead every day. Every day,” said Seng. “In the morning, you go around and look for who die and collected them.”

Nineteen of his relatives, including himself, were sent to a single camp. Seng was the family’s lone survivor when the Vietnamese army finally liberated the camps four years later.

After ending up in a refugee camp in Thailand, he made his way to Hawaii — eventually earning his GED, graduating from the John A. Burns School of Medicine, and practicing family medicine in California.

Once he retired, Seng wrote a book titled Starving Season: One Person’s Story to tell the world about the unimaginable suffering that his family endured.

“Just because we are refugees, and just because we had the tragedy, doesn’t mean that we cannot propel ourselves beyond that,” he said.

All three of his children are now doctors. His second son even followed in his footsteps, attending medical school at the University of Hawaii.

Seng will speak at a private event for JABSOM donors on Wednesday.

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