The Years of Zero: Coming of Age Under the Khmer Rouge by Seng Ty


“I remember the beauty and peace of Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge. Her people were generous and free-spirited. Her land was fertile, carpeted with rice fields, and her every monsoon a blessing… At night, the frogs croaked and crickets chirped. It was pure innocence in our big land.”

So begins the heart-rending tale of Seng Ty, and his experiences growing up in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge uprising. The youngest of 11 children, his life would be forever changed by the ruthless armies of the communist regime which sought to create an agrarian utopia through Maoist principles, mercilessly slaughtering and starving millions of Cambodians along the way.

Appearing under the guise of peace with claims of “saving” the people, the Khmer Rouge forced families from their homes in the cities into the countryside to cultivate the rice fields. But it doesn’t take long for the new government to reveal its true colors, and for the people to witness the brutal nature of their captors. 

In this chilling first hand account, Seng Ty describes the inconceivable horrors that were thrust upon him at an early age at the hand of the Khmer Rouge, including forced labor, extreme starvation, the witnessing of brutal and violent executions, and the loss of his loved ones. Through it all, he shows superhuman courage, drawing strength from the memory and enduring words of his mother. Driven by his parents desire for a better future for him, he manages to withstand, again and again, the most harrowing of experiences and fights against all odds to survive.

Yet the fall of the Khmer Rouge did not mark the end of his struggles, as he goes from a life of self-reliance living on the streets of Cambodia, to making a harrowing journey across the Thai border to a refugee camp, where he is eventually adopted by a family and brought to live in America. Living in a foreign country, with its strange customs and challenging language, Seng uses his remarkable skills of survival which he learned in Cambodia to adapt and to flourish into the inspirational person he is today.

The Years of Zero offers a frighteningly up-close glimpse at this dark period in Cambodian history. I won’t lie- I found much of this book difficult to read due to the sheer amount of suffering and horror that the author witnessed and experienced. I found myself having to take breaks and distance myself from it from time to time. I also did a lot of crying as I read. But I also found this story deeply inspirational, through Seng’s steadfast love for his family and his perseverance, and that through all this darkness and tragedy, his story is proof that light always overcomes the darkness.

The beginning of the book includes a brief Cambodian history timeline, which I found extremely fascinating. I was taken aback by most of the things mentioned, including the secret bombing of Cambodia by the USA for harboring communist forces of Vietnam. The fact that “the United States eventually dropped more bombs on neutral Cambodia than had been dropped by all parties on both fronts in all of World War II” was another incredible shock, and I have to wonder why this is something we have never heard or been taught in our history classes. This book, in its entirety, offers a valuable lesson in history that we all would do well to learn, lest we ever repeat it.

“I tell my story with the hope that others can learn from it. For me, revenge means forgiveness, education, and positive actions. It means moral courage, based on wisdom acquired over time. Every part of our life’s experience needs to be reflected upon.”


I have received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

About the author:

SENG TY was born in the Kampong Speu province of Cambodia, the son of a respected physician who taught him to value life, aspire to humility, and seek the good in people. He was thirteen when he made his way alone to a refugee camp in Thailand in 1981. His story was featured in TIME Magazine’s article “Children of War”, and was read by an American family in Amherst, Massachusetts, who adopted him a year later. Now he is a citizen of the United States, a husband, a father and an educator in the Lowell, MA School System.

Seng will never rid himself of his ghosts, nor will he forget the blood-chilling atrocities he has witnessed and experienced. However, he doesn’t crave revenge against those who carried out these atrocities. He desires to share his story of survival and courage only in order to give hope to others. He was one of the children of war tour in the US cities in early 1984, he shared his story through 
Phil Donahue Show, many major newspapers and CBS 60 Minutes in 1999.

Seng’s wish is that The Years of Zero will give him a platform to expand his message beyond the circle of his students in Lowell, to people all over the world who are in need of a little hope.

You can learn more by visiting his website at

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Related links:

Khmer Rouge leaders sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity:

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