Introduction: Arn Chorn
Digital History ID 51
For four years he endured Cambodia’s killing fields, when one-fifth of the country’s population died. He lived with 500 children in a former Buddhist temple that served as a labor camp. Next store, executions took place. "I lived through the terror of seeing students disemboweled and their kidneys eaten while they were still alive ... Life, one human life, meant nothing. They even played games with the dead. Sometimes after killing, they would prop up the person as if he were still alive.”
He was born in western Cambodia. After his father died in a 1969 motorcycle accident, his mother, who ran a vegetable stall, gave him away to be raised by a childless aunt and uncle.
When the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, Arn was sent to a work camp where hundreds of children labored clearing land, digging canals, growing rice. Three times a day, they watched executions. The Khmer Rouge split skulls open with pickaxes. "It sounded like splitting coconuts." He later described life in the camp: “Bloody everywhere. Fifteen thousand people they say they kill in that place. The children, they live in fear all day, all night. Screaming in the darkness from nightmare. No sleep, even though they work very hard.''
In 1978, after Vietnam invaded Cambodia, every boy in his district was issued a gun, including boys as young as ten. He and other child soldiers were sent into battles under orders to draw enemy fire. Those accused of collaborating with the enemy or caught trying to escape were bayoneted.
One day, when his unit was pushed deep into the rain forest by Vietnamese forces, he fled his war-ravaged country. He wandered in the forest until he reached the Thai border, subsisting on fruit that monkeys dropped from the trees. He was ill with malaria and weighed just 50 pounds. He was placed in a refugee camp--containing 30, 000 Khmer Rouge prisoners alongside frightened civilians. At the refugee camp, he was fortunate: the 14 year old was adopted by an American rescue worker and brought to the United States.
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