The Starving Season: One Person’s Story – by Seang M. Seng, M.D.

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.

FIrst They Killed My Father – directed by Angelina Jolie, 2017

Unlike any movie you’ve ever seen, this is a Cambodian feature film with an all-Cambodian cast who speak Khmer. Naturally the $24 million it took to make the Netflix movie came from Americans. Principal among the filmmakers – credited as director and cowriter – is the American actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie, a citizen of Cambodia.

In the first two minutes of the movie, we see a sorry pair of Americans: President Nixon and presidential adviser Henry Kissinger. They appear in archival news footage, mouthing off lies about their policy of noninterference while hiding the truth about the war they are prosecuting in Cambodia.

The Pinocchio-nosed Nixon says: “Cambodia, a small country of 7 million people, has been a neutral nation since the Geneva agreement of 1954. American policy since then has been to scrupulously respect the neutrality of the Cambodian people.” Interspersed with footage of U.S. Air Force bombing runs, Nixon explains, “What we are doing is to help the Cambodians help themselves… This is not an invasion of Cambodia.”

And in Hitleresque prose, Kissinger adds that “civilian casualties are occasional difficulties in reaching a final solution “

Well, Dr. K., your policy of dropping tons of bombs on Cambodian civilians was not the solution – just as it did not work against the Pathet Lao movement in neighboring Laos.

Carpet-bombing of neutral Cambodia began in March 1969. Over four years, the United States dropped nearly 3 million bombs, killing an estimated 5,000 civilians annually. And that was only the beginning of Cambodia’s agony.

According to war historians, the United States escalated its bombing campaign in January 1973 trying to halt the advance of the Khmer Rouge. The stepped up bombing destroyed large swaths of land around Phnom Penh but only delayed the take-over and in fact assisted recruitment into Pol Pot’s murderous ranks. Official sources indicate the United States spent more than $1 billion on military assistance and half a billion more on economic assistance to support Lon Nol’s government. In mid-1973, Congress halted the Pentagon’s illegal U.S. military incursion into Cambodia. Lon Nol fought the K.R. for two more years before fleeing to the United States

Jolie’s film is based on the autobiography of Loung Ung, who was five years old in April 1975 when the Khmer Rough consolidated its control over Cambodia. The horror of genocide is seen through Loung’s unblinking unbelieving eyes. When Pol Pot orders the evacuation of Phnom Penh, her family is forced to leave their comfortable home in the city. They were not alone as the Khmer Rouge ordered all 2 million residents of Phnom Penh to leave the city.

Wide-eyed, never understanding why this is happening, Loung is marched deeper and deeper into the jungle. Because all private property is banned, she and her family must surrender all of their possessions. Loung watches as her father is taken to be killed, calling out, “Come back, Pa.” It is heartbreaking to watch her – and scores of other children – doing hard labor in the Khmer Rouge work camps, experiencing sickness, starvation and  separation from family members.As a seven-year old, Loung is taught hand-to-hand combat, how to use a bayonet, how simple it is to fire an AK-47 and how tricky it is to set land mines. She is brainwashed and programmed to kill Vietnamese soldiers who entered Cambodia in December 1978.

Like little Loung, we watch wordlessly as Pol Pot’s lieutenants take Cambodia backward and begin filling the Killing Fields with corpses, as many as 3 million in all. A history student, I found myself reflecting on a time 40 years earlier when Hitler embarked on a ruthlessly inhumane campaign of extermination in Europe. The handiwork of the Khmer Rouge was equally insane and the civilized world was equally or even more aware of what was going on. Surely Kissinger knew. Surely the genocide was known at the United Nations, where the Khmer Rouge occupied Cambodia’s seat.

In war movies Americans watch, Vietnamese soldiers in their olive-green uniforms and pith hats are the bad guys. In this story, they’re the good guys. But the Vietnamese saviors were eventually seen as invaders. Cambodia was Vietnam’s Vietnam. Bogged down for a decade, Vietnam suffered 30,000 casualties in its battle to break the Khmer Rouge and pacify the countryside for its own ideological reasons. Vietnam finally pulled out of Cambodia in 1989.

Loung Ung was 10 when she left her homeland. She now lives in Ohio.