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The Fascinating Story of Sophorn Pich, Born Months After the Fall of the Khmer Rouge Regime

My father was a journalist in Phnom Penh, who was present at the time of the infamous evacuation of April 17th 1975. As he was friends with two Sisowath princes, who were part of a royal family not in power at that time, he managed to stay another month in the city before being forced to leave. When he left the capital he headed towards his home village, in the province of Kampong Chhang, and he was stopped along the way by Khmer Rouge soldiers, 60km outside of Phnom Penh. He had very long hair and wore a long city shirt. Along the rice paddies, people shouted at him “Don’t you know how to die?” because he had the typical 1975 style, he was very clearly a city man. He was very honest with the soldiers who stopped him, and showed them all his journalist papers.  He was attached and locked up in the village prison. He had come with a friend he had met on the road, who didn’t want to stop in the village and work in horrible conditions. He wanted to keep going to try and find his family. He asked for an authorisation to leave and the solider took a piece of paper, scribbled something on it, and threw it on the ground. He clearly didn’t know how to write. He continued on the road with this paper. Seeing this, my father wanted to leave too. Somebody warned him that if he left, 300m further, he would be killed. He decided to stay. He was put to work in very difficult conditions, with very long hours. He worked very rigorously in the rice paddies and did everything he was asked to do. He understood the mentality of the Khmers Rouges very quickly; he was a very clever man. He knew he had to yield to their demands in order to be accepted. He worked just like the other villagers except that he was tied up at night so that he wouldn’t run away.

There are several episodes where his talent helped him to become integrated in the village. He knew how to play guitar, and there was one in the village. He was asked to play for the soldiers, and he played what he knew: city songs that were mainly capitalist. They immediately told him to stop, and the soldiers began to sing revolutionary songs. Luckily he was able to accompany them on the guitar and they were happy to have his music. His uncle was a friend of the Khmers Rouges, who had secretly been a spy for the Long Nol regime, before the Khmers Rouges came to power. He was very flexible in his loyalties, because he knew this was the only way for him to survive. He came to the village where my father was, and told him to work very hard to show his honesty and devotion. After a while, the soldiers saw how committed he was to his work and he was promoted to be one of the prison supervisors.

Each night my father was made to be a teacher on Khmer Rouge politics. As the soldiers were satisfied with his work, they asked him to make a list of people to send to work on a construction site. On the site, people ate better, so it was very tempting for the villagers. The work would be to build irrigation systems. It was in 1977. An old man was strongly encouraged by the soldiers to sign up to the list. He was a base person – that is, one of those who had lived in the village before the occupation – and he owned two cows, which he kept for himself. He had capitalist tendencies. After the meeting about the construction site, he murmured in my father’s ear that he, along with all the others on the list, would be killed 1km down the road. The next morning, my father saw the group of people he had selected being forced to remove their clothes and pushed onto a cart to be attached. Seeing this, my father couldn’t walk anymore, his whole body started shaking, he was in total shock. He was extremely traumatised by this episode. When I was young I would observe him a lot, and I saw that he had strange behaviours. For example, he was very violent. He never spoke about being forced to hit or to kill, but I suspect it must have happened. However it’s true that when he started talking about everything that he had been through, I saw him lighten up a little, exteriorising everything was good for him, and put him on the path of healing.

On the first birthday of the 17th of April 1975, in 1976, there was a celebratory meeting. My father was present. A soldier asked “have you anything to say about our revolution?” and my father bravely put up his hand and answered: “We need equality, but you eat rice and we eat soup of rice.” The next day he was given a bag of rice to cook for himself and all the villagers, under control. A Khmer Rouge soldier, who knew my father because he came from the same village when they were young, warned him to be extremely careful because when you were under control, the slightest mistake could cost you your life. My father, who was very ingenious, thought “I need to find a solution!” So when he was transporting very heavy pails of earth up to the top of an embankment that was being constructed, he feigned being very sick. When he got to the top, he pretended to vomit, then fell and rolled down to the bottom. He was sent to hospital, where he stayed for nearly two months, to escape the Khmer Rouge control.

At the same time, in a village not so far off, my mother was also working in a Khmer Rouge camp. She was part of the people evacuated from Phnom Penh on the 17th of April. She was a nurse and was very clever, even though she had not studied further than at primary school. Families, at the time, and often still today, made a huge difference between educating girls and boys. They preferred to keep girls at home, uneducated, so men could keep control in the house. She left with her nurse’s equipment when she was evacuated, and on the road everything was confiscated. She was stopped in a small village, where soldiers asked her what her occupation had been in Phnom Penh. She answered that she had been a seamstress. They asked her to prove it. She made a black shirt, with a red neckline, and it really pleased the soldiers. She had many hidden talents. Then, they asked her if she knew how to plough rice. Again, she was able to prove that she did. Just like my father, she was a conscientious worker, so much so that she soon became the head of 50 people, the second highest grade in a work camp.

The superior leader of her village also supervised the village where my father worked. He was the one who had the idea of marrying them. He had already told my mother that she had to marry, but twice in a row she had refused the man they wanted her to marry, on the grounds that she was sick. The third time they suggested my father, and she could refuse no longer. They were married without ever having seen each other. My father had had a fiancée before the start of the regime, and he always kept a picture of her with him. When he realised he had no choice on the matter of marrying my mother, he tore the picture into tiny pieces and threw them into the flowing water of the rice paddies.  The Khmer Rouge dream was to increase the population from 10 million people to 15 million people, having eliminated all the intellectuals with revolutionary ideas.

When they were married, they were separated early in the morning before the sunrise, and only returned to their cabin after sunset, such that they never got to see each other. At night, a Khmer Rouge spy would lie under their cabin and listen to check that they were making love. If they didn’t cooperate and make an effort to get along, they would be separated and placed in rehabilitation camps, in horrible conditions. The spy would listen, and as he heard them, they were left alone. It’s only after one week of marriage that they were allowed to see each other for the first time. It was extraordinary. My father remembers being directed towards the rice paddy where my mother was working, and he didn’t recognise her. An old woman was the one to indicate who she was. So, as they had an afternoon off, they went to their cabin, and met each other again: “What’s your name, where are you from, what did you study…”

At the end of the regime, they were freed, and my father found out that his old fiancée was still alive. I asked my father why he had continued loving my mother after meeting his old fiancée again. There was one thing he was unable to forget: when they had been very hungry, and had extremely little to eat, my mother would keep half of her meal for my father. A very powerful, unbreakable connection united them after living such moments together. What’s more, my mother was already pregnant with me when the regime fell.

Returning to Phnom Penh, when my father saw his old fiancée, he got hold of the two pictures of him that she had kept with her throughout the occupation. These are them: my father before 1975.

There was a huge crisisDSC_46371okDSC_4643ok in my parents’ relationship at that time, because my grandmother – my father’s mother – absolutely did not want my father to continue living with my mother, who was a war nurse, uneducated, brought up in rice paddies, who ate vegetables with roots! My mother was completely rejected by her family-in-law. My father’s fiancée even called me “my boy” and considered me as her son. She was often present at family reunions, and my mother would sit in a corner crying. My mother and the fiancée never made peace. Neither of them are to blame, it’s our society’s fault.

After the regime, my father became the head of a refugee camp on the Thaï border. Refugees were sent either to France or to America. My mother didn’t want to go, as my grandmother had only paid the exorbitant price for one person to be sent off. My mother received a letter from my father begging her to come to the camp so that they could reunite. At the time, the only form of transport was with bicycle-taxis. As money had been rendered illegal during the Khmer Rouge occupation, people paid for things with gold or with rice. A gold necklace was cut into 5cm pieces, worth 10kg of rice each. My mother paid the equivalent of 400$, a whole gold necklace, to go from Battambang to the border. She wrapped a krama around me, her new-born baby, and travelled with me in her arms. When she arrived to the camp, my mother couldn’t find my father anywhere. He had already returned to Battambang to find her because the Vietnamese troops had attacked the camp. When they were finally reunited, my mother found a job as a seamstress in a village close to Battambang, that paid 28kg of rice a month. That’s where I grew up as a young child.

At the time, it was extremely rare to have a photographer come to villages. One day, a photographer arrived on his scooter, and everybody ran up to him with clothes to exchange against a photograph. I didn’t have any shoes. I only had a tshirt and a pair of shoes. I ran over to take a photo and was told to wait for my family. We could only get one or two, because they were very expensive. These are the only two photos I have of my childhood – I am the oldest child in both pictures.

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The second photo is with my mother and my aunt. There, on the other side of the road, there were barricades with Vietnamese troops. Sometimes troops of Khmers Rouges would come very close to there, where I lived, and we would hear the sound of combat, gunshots, canons… You can see the fear on my little brother’s face.

During my childhood, there was still a lot of turbulence between the Khmers Rouges and the Phnom Penh soldiers who were allied with the Vietnamese. I remember spending nearly a month in a trench, hiding from canons. At school we were often evacuated by bells, and we had to run home quickly. It was very traumatising. After the Khmer Rouge regime, all the intellectuals had been killed off, and there was nobody to insure our education, classes at school were very basic. Everything had to be rebuilt. The whole country was starting over from scratch. There was a general trauma, and still today people cannot sleep at night because of the nightmares they have in which they relive the atrocities they suffered during the regime. Even I am haunted by the evacuation bells, and by the fear I felt as a child in that terrifying atmosphere.

I started learning French in middle school and received my baccalaureate in 1997. I went to Phnom Penh to go to university, but after sitting the exams, I wasn’t taken anywhere. Finally I sat an exam to become a French teacher in the school of education. My French was not very good, I still had a beginner’s level, but I was received anyway and became a teacher in a bilingual school. In 2003, I found out that PSE was looking for French teachers and I was hired. I had already done an internship at PSE in 1998. Back then, in 1998, the PSE center was a lot smaller and Steung Meanchey was still full of rice paddies! When you crossed the road, you would see frogs and crabs go from one side to the other. I gradually became interested in cinema and photography, and I had many ideas because I loved to read. I joined the PSE film school. It was very hard to find people who also had ideas, because after the Khmer Rouge regime, nobody knew how to read or had any interest in books. Therefore, people didn’t think with the intention of creating, understanding, or constructing things.  Nowadays, it’s starting, there are more and more people with rich imaginations who want to create, but not that many. Now I direct the film school of PSE and I am finalising the script for an autobiographical movie I am making. I would love to write a book about my parents’ experience under the Khmers Rouges. The work I do is one of reconciliation with our own history. I was born in a world that denied all access to art, culture, knowledge, Now I want to push people to creation, I want to cultivate the people around me by making movies, in order to change and evolve Cambodia.

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