By Anne-marie O'neill
May 04, 1998 12:00 PM

She calls them nightmares, but the images that still haunt Vornida Seng 23 years after the Khmer Rouge devastated her native Cambodia were once hellishly real. She dreams of her 10-year-old brother’s torture for the crime of stealing fruit; hears the screams of her brothers and sister as soldiers dump their mother’s body into an unmarked grave. The sole surviving member of her family, she relives the agony of having each of her four siblings die in her arms. “I keep asking myself, ‘Could I have done anything to stop it?’ ” says Seng, now 34 and a news desk assistant in PEOPLE’S Washington bureau. “But how do you stop evil?”

Like millions of other Cambodians who lived through Pol Pot’s terror, news of his death on April 15 (page 143) brought Seng no joy. “They say he died peacefully,” she says. “After everything he did to my people, I wanted him to suffer and starve and know what he put us through.” Yet beneath the bitterness, hope lives on for Seng in her two American-born children—Jonathan, 2, and Phillip, 1. “When they grow up, I’m going to tell them what happened to us,” she says. “I want them to work hard and be strong.”

The remarkable story they’ll hear began on April 17, 1975, when Khmer Rouge soldiers evacuating Phnom Penh burst into the five-bedroom home of Seng and her family and forced them out at gunpoint. Her mother, Sary, then 31, was ill; her father, Bunchhan Sim, 32, a helicopter pilot for the overthrown government of Cambodian Army General Lon Nol, was missing in action. Pol Pot had decided that to achieve his perfect communist state he had to empty the cities. “Thousands of people filled the streets,” Seng recalls. “Corpses lay by the road. Hospital patients, some with IV bottles, tried to walk with the crowd. Elderly people cried for help.”

After walking for weeks, Seng’s family reached a village in the Kompong Speu province, the first of several jungle settlements where Seng, then 11, her mother and younger siblings would be forced to work 12 hours a day in the rice fields, subsisting on meager rations of rice, soup and dried fish. “There were no clocks, no radios and certainly no television,” she says. “Time stopped.”

A year later, without warning, the family was herded onto a truck, which the children believed might take them home to Phnom Penh—until their convoy passed through the deserted capital. “There were no lights, no cars, no traffic, no noise,” says Seng. “We kept shouting ‘Stop! Stop!’ as we sped through the city. Then all our hopes died.”

Deposited in another village in western Cambodia, they built their own primitive hut from the surrounding bamboo trees. Seng was sent away to a work camp, but she returned later that year to find her grandmother and her sister Leakhena, 10, ill with malaria. Within days her grandmother was dead. Three weeks later, little Leakhena “died in my lap,” says Seng, “with her eyes opened in tears.” The next time she returned from the work camp, in October 1978, most of the villagers were starving, and her mother was near death, leaving Seng, at 14, to care for her gaunt siblings. “We ate anything,” she recalls, “from scorpions to lizards, rats and grasshoppers.”

When her mother succumbed two weeks later, “I felt like my heart was broken,” Seng says. Yet things got worse. She and her brothers—Siphano, 9, and Visothy, 8—and sister Metheany, 10, were sent to a mountain prison camp, where Visothy died in Seng’s arms of high fever and starvation. “Nobody was supposed to leave this place alive,” she says. “You worked until you died by starvation, sickness or killing.” Once, Seng returned from the fields to find Siphano tied to a tree that he had climbed to pick fruit. “His eyes were shut and the soldiers kept hitting him with their rifles. They brought bees and ants to sting him until he lost consciousness.”

When Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978, the Pol Pot regime started to crumble, and soldiers began to desert the camp. Shortly after, Siphano died from food poisoning after eating tainted meat from the head of a pig that the soldiers had abandoned. Carrying her remaining sister, Metheany, in a basket, Seng walked to a neighboring village and hitched a ride to the province of Siem Reap. A few days later, Metheany died in a Siem Reap hospital. With the death of her last sibling, says Seng, “my life and my dreams were over.” In search of her father, she set off for Phnom Penh, but ended up in a Kompong Cham hospital after injuring her leg on the way. A local driver for TIME magazine named Hout Seng, whom Seng had met through a friend at the hospital, took her in. With Hout, his wife and sons Neang, then 17, and Neang 8, Seng traveled to a refugee camp in Thailand where they met a TIME correspondent reporting on the camps. He alerted former Bangkok bureau chief Stan Cloud, who arranged for the magazine to sponsor Hout and his family and pay their passage to the U.S.

Although she spoke no English at first, Seng took just a few years to graduate from high school in Arlington, Va., where the family settled, and went on to earn an associate degree in accounting at a local community college in 1989. She joined PEOPLE in 1993, where she works down the hall from Hout’s son Neang, a news desk assistant for TIME, whom she married in 1987. “I still have nightmares about those terrible years,” she says. “But I feel special just to be alive.”

Anne-Marie O’Neill

Jane Sims Podesta in Virginia and Linda Kramer in Washington