Arun was just five years old when the Khmer Rouge, a communist guerrilla force which seized power in Cambodia from 1975 until 1979, entered his small village and forced all the residents to leave at gunpoint. The men were sent to one work camp, the women and young children to another, and the older children lived in a third camp. Within these camps, everyone was assigned to a mobile labour team.
Everyone was forced to do hard labour for up to sixteen hours a day, predominantly tasks related to growing more rice. The labourers were fed a small cup of watery porridge twice a day, while most of the rice they produced was exported to China in exchange for military supplies. Children received indoctrination instead of education.
The Khmer Rouge enforced strict obedience. Anything from refusing an order, to scavenging the paddy fields for frogs to eat, to crying when a family member was killed could result in death. In less than four years, one quarter of Cambodia’s 1975 population died of starvation, torture and execution. As a young child, Arun himself survived several weeks in a Khmer Rouge prison.
The Vietnamese liberated Cambodia on January 7th 1979. Most Khmer Rouge soldiers put down their weapons and people started to pick up the pieces of their fractured lives. Aged nine, Arun began to walk in search of his village. He travelled one hundred and fifty miles before he reached his former home. When he arrived, however, he discovered no-one from his family remained. All thirty-six members had died or disappeared during those four years.
With no-one to look after him, Arun had to survive on his own. By exchanging labour for shelter and food, he made his way towards the capital in search of work. Once he had arrived in Phnom Penh, he scavenged the streets with other young people. Together, however, students and monks began to organise and clean up the city – collecting garbage, planting trees and reviving the war-torn country’s colonial centre. They learned English together and studied their own language, business skills and began to speak about healing their shattered nation.
Arun is reminded of his own past every time he sees orphaned or abandoned children. He does not want others to suffer nor go through what he did. In 2003, Arun established the Sovann Komar Children’s Village alongside Elizabeth Johnson whom he had met the previous year. Inspired by one another, they began to work together to change the lives of impoverished Cambodian children.
Now acting both as the Executive Director at Sovann Komar and a foster father, alongside his wife, Arun cares for six of Sovann Komar’s orphaned children, in addition to two biological sons and a daughter he adopted before the orphanage began.