Cambodian diary a rare glimpse of life under the Khmer Rouge

Poch Younly's 1976 diary is a rare record of life under the Khmer Rouge, and the horrors it recounts helped convict two of the regime's top men

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 August, 2014, 9:35pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 August, 2014, 1:42am

It was an extraordinary act of defiance, and it was extraordinarily risky. But all Poch Younly did was set pen to paper.

Nearly 40 years ago, hunched on the floor of the wood-and-leaf hut he was forced to live in away from his children, the Cambodian school inspector kept a secret diary vividly recounting the horrors of life under the Khmer Rouge.

He ... looked up at me and said: ‘Protect this no matter what, even if I die’

The radical communist regime, an extreme experiment in social engineering, took the lives of 1.7 million Cambodians through overwork, medical neglect, starvation and execution.

Poch Younly was acutely aware that he could be killed if discovered. He hid the diary inside a clay vase. In those dark days, when religion and schools were banned and anyone deemed educated could be killed, he had no right to own so much as a pen and paper.

"Why is it that I have to die here like a cat or a dog ... without any reason, without any meaning?" he wrote in the spiral-bound notebook's last pages.

Four decades later, that question still haunts Cambodia.

Poch Younly did not survive, but his diary did. It was part of the vast case file that on August 7 helped convict the only two surviving Khmer Rouge leaders facing prosecution: 83-year-old ex-president Khieu Samphan and 88-year-old Nuon Chea, right-hand man to infamous late leader Pol Pot. A UN-backed tribunal sentenced both men to life in prison for crimes against humanity, a verdict many believe was too little, and far too late.

The diary, made public for the first time last year, is astonishingly rare, one of just four known first-hand accounts penned by victims and survivors while the Khmer Rouge was in power, compared with 453 such documents written by communist cadres then.

It is "the story of all of us who survived", said Youk Chhang, who runs the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which has amassed millions of documents, photographs, films and verbal testimonies from the Khmer Rouge era. When the Khmer Rouge was in charge, everything belonged to the revolution, he said. "You owned nothing. Not even your life story."

Poch Younly's account is vital because people like Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea have tried to cast doubt over atrocities committed during their rule. The majority of Cambodians living today were born after the Khmer Rouge was ousted in 1979 and some who survived can forget how bad it was.

"People forget how hungry we were," said Youk Chhang, who still has dark scars on his legs from shackles he wore while detained by Khmer Rouge soldiers for two months. "It's hard to describe to young people what starvation felt like. But the whole nation was starved ... and this story is rarely told."

Written in Khmer, Poch Younly's diary fills about 100 pages. It is divided into two sections. The first summarises his family history, an era spanning French colonial rule, the Japanese occupation during the second world war and his arranged marriage to his then 15-year-old wife.

The rest, written as a letter to his children, describes life under the Khmer Rouge and is dated only at the start and end, February 9 and July 29, 1976, with a final postscript entered a few days later.

When Khmer Rouge forces seized Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, the couple was living with eight of their children in a rural town called Kampong Chhnang. Three days later, the guerillas arrived and residents, including Poch Younly, cheered, relieved the war was finally over, his 86-year-old widow Som Seng Eath recalled.

But within hours, everything changed. Every soul was ordered to leave on foot.

The Khmer Rouge emptied Cambodia's cities, marching millions of people into the countryside to work as manual labourers. Their aim was to create an agrarian communist utopia. They turned the Southeast Asian nation into a slave state.

Poch Younly "didn't believe what was happening. He kept saying, 'Don't worry, we'll be back soon, don't pack much'," his widow said. She ignored his advice, and took as much as she could - including five of her husband's notebooks, and several pens.

As gunshots rang, they joined the departing hordes, cradling their young children and whatever they could carry. As they walked, people wept.

Poch Younly recounts marching through forests and mountains for two weeks. Along the way, most of their possessions were confiscated, including four of the notebooks and a prized camera Poch Younly had bought during a visit to the United States in 1961.

The residents began hearing talk of execution sites ahead, what would later become known as Cambodia's killing fields.

On May 1, they reached the village of Chumteav Chreng and settled.

The new authorities, known as Angkar - "the Organisation" - soon "ordered all of our clothes to be dyed black", Poch Younly wrote. The evacuees were organised into work units. Children were separated from their parents and put to work in special units.

"We worked day and night clearing wood to make arable land, uprooting the trees, digging canals, building roads and dykes, planting vegetables and digging ponds," Poch Younly wrote. "We worked 10 to 13 hours a day."

Food supplies dwindled. Poch Younly and his wife grew so desperate they traded clothes and a treasured family locket for salt, sugar and medicine.

The following month, Poch Younly fell ill. He could not work, but he had the privacy to write.

Months later, he began sensing his end was near.

"By now, my body resembles a corpse, thin with only skin and bones," he wrote. "I have no energy, and my hands and legs tremble. No power, no strength. I cannot walk far or do heavy work. Everyone works like animals, like machines, without any value, without hope for the future."

At one point, Poch Younly writes of his regret that he could not see all of his children. His two oldest sons were elsewhere in the country. The others were forced to live in other parts of the village, working in mobile children's units. "Let me die," he continued. "Let my destiny take me wherever it goes ... My children, I miss you; I love you."

Poch Younly wrote until there were no pages left , his wife said. On August 1, 1976, he wrote a postscript on the final page, asking his family to care for the diary.

Hours later, he was taken away by the regime to help lift a palm tree that had fallen in a paddy field. In fact, authorities had come to arrest him because one of his sons had attempted to obtain some fermented fish in exchange for an Omega watch that Poch Younly had bought in the US 15 years earlier. Private property was illegal; hiding it was worse.

"I never saw him again," Som Seng Eath said, tears streaming down her wrinkled cheeks 38 years later.

Poch Younly died several weeks later, in a nearby prison where he had been kept chained to the ground.

Som Seng Eath says the diary is too painful to read now. She says she didn't understand its importance at the time. But she could never forget what he said about it. "He once looked up at me and said: 'Protect this no matter what, even if I die.'"

His widow kept the diary safe for two decades, then passed it on to one of her daughters. It was the daughter's husband who suggested giving the notebook to the documentation centre to protect the fragile, yellowed pages of history.