LOWELL — Seng Ty was a boy when the Khmer Rouge launched its reign of terror in Cambodia, and his family was packed into a boxcar with countless others and taken to a labor camp. For three days, passengers went without food or water in the stifling heat, ‘‘fighting for space and air.”
“People are crying, people are dying,” Ty recalled. “We had no idea where we were going or how long it would take.”
When he was able to sleep, the sound of the steam engine haunted his dreams, Ty wrote in his memoir, “The Years of Zero,” about his childhood.
At the Lowell middle school where Ty has worked as a guidance counselor for more than two decades, eighth-grade students have been reading his heartbreaking account, learning about Cambodian history through the man they affectionately call “Mr. T.”
In a city with one the largest Cambodian-American populations in the country, many of the students are descendants of survivors of the Cambodian genocide. But many know little about the atrocities of four decades ago, teachers said. Their relatives, reluctant to burden themselves or their loved ones, have kept the stories to themselves.
Ty’s heartbreaking first-hand account has brought that history to light and made it bracingly real.
“Silence has been their strategy,” Linda Willis, instructional specialist at the Stoklosa Middle School in Lowell, said of the survivors. “This gives the whole experience a face.”
After reading the memoir, students wrote Ty about what it meant to them, and at a recent class, Ty thanked them for their insights.
“It is a wonderful, strange feeling that you know about my childhood,” he said. “It has touched my heart.”
Students peppered Ty with questions about the book, showing that they had read his story closely and with curiosity. One asked what went through his mind as he buried his mother, who had died of starvation.
“I felt so empty,” he told the students. “I wanted to die so I didn’t have to face it. But I knew I had to keep going.”
Most of Ty’s family died in the genocide, which claimed the lives of approximately 1.7 million people — more than one-fifth of the country’s population — from starvation, disease, and execution from 1975 to 1979.
In 1981, at age 13, he reached a UN refugee camp in Thailand, where his story was featured in Time magazine. A family in Amherst read the story and adopted Ty a year later.
“I felt like I was born again,” Ty said.
‘This history is very important. I thought, if I don’t share my story, someday it will disappear.’Seng Ty, author and native of Cambodia
Another student asked him whether it was hard to write the book, if all the terrible memories came rushing back. Ty acknowledged that he had nightmares while writing but felt obligated to make his story known.
“This history is very important,” he told the students. “I thought, if I don’t share my story, someday it will disappear. It will be gone.”
Steven Cyr, an eighth-grade English teacher, said the students read the book aloud in his class, and they were moved by Ty’s bravery in the face of unimaginable horror.
“They didn’t want to put it down,” he said. “As awful as it was, they wanted to read more. They were bowled over by it.”
Ashley Pol, 14, said Ty’s story made her realize the depths of what her relatives went through, and filled her with a mix of grief and pride.
“Words can’t express it,” the eighth-grader said. “It was so heartfelt. He made it feel like you were in his shoes.”
Pol’s mother was the only one of her siblings to survive the genocide, she said.
Romeo Tim-Louangphixai, 14, said that he was moved by Ty’s determination to survive, even when things seemed beyond hope.
“It’s so sad, but so inspiring,” he said.
Ty, 47, was just 7 when the Khmer Rouge came to power. Leader Pol Pot declared that the nation would start at “Year Zero,” and party officials drove millions from cities to labor camps in the countryside.
One night, Khmer Rouge forces came looking for Ty’s father and led him away. Ty never saw him again. “This never goes away,” he said of his grief.
When Ty arrived at a labor camp, he said, he lived with 30 people in a single hut. He was the only one who survived. Most died of starvation. In the book, he recalls people “screaming in their sleep because of their hunger.”
“Every bit of their flesh had been absorbed by their hunger,” he wrote. “Only their bones remained. Our crowded thatched house had been reduced to an open space of a few bodies fighting dark dreams.”
Ty would sneak out at night to steal food to survive, risking beatings or death. He ate whatever he could to quell his hunger, even insects and leaves.
“Hunger is worse than torture,” he wrote. “You get dizzy . . . everything gets fuzzy . . . you never, ever stop thinking about food and where to find some.”
During a recent class discussion of the memoir, a student asked what he liked most about America. Ty said he loved the freedom people enjoyed and how everyone could receive an education.
“And I can eat all the food I want,” he said.
The class was ending, so Ty said he would take a couple of final questions. Dozens of hands shot into the air. The last question was whether he ever missed Cambodia. He told the students Cambodia was a beautiful place but home was here.
“Lowell, this school are my home,” he said, drawing a round of applause.Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.