A Cambodian school inspector kept a secret diary recounting the horrors under the communist regime.
It was an extraordinary act of defiance, and it was extraordinarily risky. But all he did was take out a pen, and write.
Nearly 40 years ago, hunched on the floor of the wood-and-leaf hut he was forced to live away from his children, Cambodian school inspector Poch Younly kept a secret diary vividly recounting the horrors of life under the Khmer Rouge, the radical communist regime whose extreme experiment in social engineering took the lives of 1.7 million Cambodians from overwork, medical neglect, starvation and execution.
Acutely aware that he could be killed if discovered, Younly hid the diary inside a clay vase. In those dark days, when religion and schools were banned and anyone deemed educated was a threat, he had no right to own so much as a pen and paper.
Younly did not survive that era. But his diary did. It was part of the vast case file which this week helped convict the only two surviving Khmer Rouge leaders still facing justice 83-year-old former president Khieu Samphan and 88-year-old Nuon Chea, right-hand man of the group’s infamous late leader, Pol Pot. On Thursday, a U.N.-backed tribunal sentenced both men to life in prison for crimes against humanity a verdict that many believe was too little, and far too late.
Made public for the first time last year, the diary is astonishingly rare one of just four known firsthand accounts penned by victims and survivors while the Khmer Rouge were in power, compared to 453 such documents written by communist cadres at the time.
It is “the story of all of us who survived,” said Youk Chhang, who runs the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has amassed millions of documents, photographs, films and verbal testimonies from the Khmer Rouge era. When the Khmer Rouge were in charge, everything belonged to the revolution, he said. “You owned nothing. Not even your life story.”
“People forget how hungry we were,” said Youk Chhang, who still has dark scars on his legs from shackles he was held in by Khmer Rouge soldiers for two months.
Written in Khmer, the diary fills about 100 pages and is divided into two sections. The first summarizes Younly’s family history, an era spanning French colonial rule, the Japanese occupation during World War II. The rest, written as a letter addressed to his children, describes life under the Khmer Rouge and is dated only at the start and the end Feb. 9 and July 29, 1976, with a final post-script 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 guerrillas arrived and residents including 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 were emptying Cambodia’s cities, marching millions of people into the countryside to work as manual labourers. Their aim was to create an agrarian communist utopia, but they were turning the Southeast Asian nation into a slave state.