In the beginning, Arn is a boy facing many difficulties. His father died in a freak motorcycle accident, his mother cannot support her family and must leave her children with an aunt while she goes to Phnom Penh to find work. It is a great struggle for all. When his village is rounded up and forced to march to an unknown destination, Arn is separated from family members. Forced to give up all possessions and pretend he has no feelings for family, or life, Arn struggles through those years just to stay alive. The atrocities are unbearable, but Arn survives. Many events allow that to happen.
He has music, which proves valuable. Because he can play, he earns a position of favor. He gets extra food which he shares with his fellow musicians. The purpose of the music is gruesome, to hide the sounds of the killing that goes on endlessly...the sounds of hatchet striking the skulls of those deemed unfit or of no use to the Khmer Rouge. He is guilt-ridden but knows that he cannot do anything but keep himself alive. Even when he is ready to die, when death seems imminent...something happens to spare Arn's life and he lives one more long, difficult day:
"Big battle happen. Lotta kid get killed. Lotta soldier, too. One time I stand up and wait for the bullet to come for me. Why they don't hit me, I don't know. Even if I want to die. I can't. Survive. That the only thing I can do."
Then the news comes that the Vietnamese are closing in. The children are given guns, forced to be 'bait' for their captors. They are sent on scouting missions, forced to drop grenades into Vietnamese tanks, and face the terror of certain death. Arn's immunity to feeling and fright is heartbreaking. His voice is powerful, terrifying and proves time and time again how truly resilient children can be.
Arn was only 11 when the Khmer Rouge took control over Cambodia in 1975. 1.7 million people died of starvation, disease and abuse under that leadership. His story is as heartbreaking, as it is eventually hopeful. What he endured and had to come to grips with once he was living in the United States made me cry:
"And then the story pour out of me, about the kid dying from no food, the ax hitting the skull, the people calling to me from the grave. And then something happen. The paper I hold, big splash of water on it, the word now dripping off the page. And my voice now, my careful American voice, it crack and break and die in my throat. Never have I cry, not one time, all these year. From eleven-year-old kid till now, not one tear. So many year, I think I kill off all the tear inside me. But after this long, dry season, now finally the rain."
Release comes through tears and through telling his story around the world so others might know the horror of the Cambodian people during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. He is a fascinating man, and one worthy of our admiration and attention.