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Q&A: Pauch Khiev, on penning the story of her older brother’s survival

Pauch Khiev was born in a labour camp in Battambang but now lives in California.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
Pauch Khiev was born in a labour camp in Battambang but now lives in California. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Q&A: Pauch Khiev, on penning the story of her older brother’s survival

When Pauch Khiev, 37, met a Vietnam war veteran who had written a memoir, she finally realised she should finally tell a story close to her own heart. Pauch was born a year into the Khmer Rouge regime, in a Battambang labour camp. Her brother, San Khiev, 28 years older than herself, spent the war inside a pagoda-turned-prison. He is believed to be one of the only survivors of that temple. Years later, after growing up in the US hearing snippets of his story, Pauch interviewed him for a book on his extraordinary life. She aims to self-publish Purging Innocence, this year for release on Amazon.com and as an e-book. She is raising funds on Indiegogo.com.

You mention on your Indiegogo web page that this project has been in the making for a long time. When did you decide to start writing?
As I child, I didn’t know that anyone could write. I thought you had to be someone important to have the privilege. It was in 1995, when I met Ron Kovic, the author of [Vietnam war memoir] Born on the Fourth of July, that I was inspired to write my book. After realising any ordinary person can write about their amazing life, I was determined to do it. But it wasn’t until 2008 that I finally devoted my full attention.

Pauch as a young girl.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
Pauch as a young girl. PHOTO SUPPLIED

You were less than three years old when the Khmer Rouge period ended, but do you have any memories from the time?
I was very young, I didn’t have any emotional clarity back then, just memories. Every now and then I’ll remember something and I’ll think, “did that really happen, or was it a dream?” I remember crying when my five-year-old sister was tied up and beaten for picking water spinach – I have an image of her scooping my rice porridge with a spoon. Her arms came from under the stilt house and through a crack in the bamboo flooring. I was crying for my mum.

How did your brother’s story emerge, years later, when you were both living in California?
My brother always taught us not to be wasteful with food. He explained how scarce food was when he was in prison, and for everyone under the Khmer Rouge regime. Then he would continue telling about everything else that happened.

You hint in the description of the book that San befriended the singer Sinn Sisamouth?
San met Sinn Sisamouth through a mutual friend who was a high-ranking military official. San shared a few weeks of his life with him. This occurred right after everyone was forced to evacuate Phnom Penh – they settled in Wat Champa and Kien Svay, right along the Mekong River.

During the Khmer Rouge years, San was imprisoned in Wat Thomayuth. Where is that and what was its fate?
The temple is in Moung Ruessei, Battambang. That’s where I was born. Shortly after I was born, San was arrested. He is not sure why and how he survived. San has a friend who he met here in the US who was forced into hard labour outside the temple. That friend of his was forced to clean human gallbladder that was harvested from the prisoners.

San Khiev, who now lives in San Francisco.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
San Khiev, who now lives in San Francisco. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Towards the end of the regime a group connected to the Khmer Rouge had bombed the temple and killed many inside. There are currently people living at the temple who take care of it. The temple was renamed a number of times; the current name as of 2013 is Bopha Vatey.

Does he know anyone else who suffered inside that prison?
My brother just told me that one of the Khmer Rouge soldiers who worked in the temple when he was arrested is now living in New York. That soldier helped give food to San secretly during that time. San offered to pay for his plane ticket to come visit but he is ashamed to meet and reunite with San. San called him but after the phone call he changed his number.
A lot of Khmer Rouge soldiers were forced to kill people and do things unwittingly – I am sure that soldier is not proud of what happened in that temple.

The title, Purging Innocence, is interesting. Is it associated with a feeling of yours that everyone who suffered under the Khmer Rouge, including those who were members of the regime and committed atrocities in that period, should be considered innocent in some sense?
The title came to me one night during an episode of insomnia. It just made sense: the Khmer Rouge was purging people. All the people had in common was their innocence.

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