In Cambodia there are two seasons: the rainy season for planting and the dry season for harvesting. The title of Dr. Seng’s book refers to the manmade catastrophe of Cambodia’s Holocaust when educated, civilized people were made to live like hungry animals and the weak were left to die.
The world was appalled in April 1975 when the Khmer Rouge unleashed a reign of barbarism against their own people, emptying cities and towns, driving the population deep into the jungle to live by the work of their bare hands, without permanent shelter and without adequate food to sustain such a harsh life.
Seang Seng was a 24-year-old, fourth-year medical student in Phnom Penh when the Cambodian Holocaust began. Nearly four years later, he alone of his 24 family members walked out of Cambodia’s Killing Fields. His story describes in excruciating detail every step of the way. Dr. Seng’s narrative dovetails with the equally absorbing and inspiring story told in the 2017 movie First They Killed My Father – directed by Angelina Jolie, 2017.”
I’m pleased to report that in Dr. Seng’s story, there are American heroes, but — spoiler alert — they don’t show up until the last chapter.
In the mid-1960s, Cambodians were grateful to Norodom Sihanouk, their sometime-King, sometime-Prime Minister for keeping them out of the American War that was consuming Vietnam and Laos. However, Dr. Seng’s footnotes remind us that in 1969, President Nixon ordered the clandestine carpet-bombing of neutral Cambodia, and later propped up the rightist coup leader General Lon Nol, plunging Cambodia deeper into civil war. When his Khmer Rouge overseers order Dr. Seng to collect human feces for fertilizer, he uses a scoop fashioned from a tree branch and a U.S. Army helmet. The Khmer Rouge seek to erase history; even so the scoop is named after Lon Nol.
The Good Americans show up on November 22, 1979, when Dr. Seng, and his bride enter Khao I Dang refugee camp inside Thailand, just one day after it opened. On his second day in camp, a curious Dr. Seng stumbled across the field hospital set up by the American Refugee Committee. The first Americans he met were volunteer doctors and nurses from Minnesota.
It buoyed me to see them care for their Cambodian patients the way all humans are supposed to be treated. These Westerners also took time to train our Khmer staff … They built an atmosphere of camaraderie with us.
Other Americans Dr. Seng met at Khao I Dang played a supporting role in assisting him and his wife Srey. There was a female med student who organized an impromptu wedding ceremony for them; an ARC worker who helped them contact Srey’s relatives to sponsor them in America; and a male R.N. from Iowa who offered advice and friendship.
But it was a tall, angular American from Hawaii who would set his future course. Dr. Daniel Susott, who became the camp’s medical director, encouraged Seng to apply to the University of Hawaii medical school, and Susott himself began the exhaustive trail of paperwork to make the magic happen. Even Susott’s parents got into the act, meeting the Sengs upon their arrival in Honolulu in August 1980.
The sight of coconut trees behind my apartment along the Ala Wai canal made me feel at home. My first impression of America was positive. … What’s good about America is that the majority of people respect the law.
The newcomer marveled that American motorists moved aside to let ambulances pass, and yielded to pedestrians — even when pedestrians jaywalked.
Living in Hawaii wasn’t easy for Dr. Seng and his pregnant wife. The hardships med student Seng faced in Hawaii as a penniless immigrant — paying rent, finding part-time jobs, struggling with a language he didn’t speak well — were many but nothing like the hardships he’d endured in Cambodia.
Eventually with the support of Dr. Susott and the assistant dean of the medical school, University rules were bent to enroll a Cambodian med student under an affirmative action program for Pacific Islanders.
I joined Dr. Seng on March 6, 2019, at an event in his honor at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. There were some teary eyes when the silver-haired 68-year-old survivor of the Killing Fields thanked the University of Hawaii for making his dream of becoming a medical doctor in America a reality.
In his book, he thanks Dr. Susott for giving a lifelong gift to him, his wife, and their three children — all three of whom remarkably became doctors in California.
And in the Preface to his very personal story, Dr. Seng writes:
In the refugee camp, I was offered a chance to resettle in France but I was willing to wait for America. I picked America and became a citizen as soon as I could. I made the right choice. Thank you, America.
America brought unexpected prominence to another humble holocaust survivor Dr. Seng befriended at the Khao I Dang refugee camp. Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a Cambodian medical doctor who worked with ARC, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his 1984 role in “The Killing Fields”. In 1996, Dr. Ngor was shot to death at his Los Angeles home.