Poch Yuonly seemed to know he would die soon; so he wrote and wrote until he ran out of pages.
In a cheap spiral journal filled with graph paper, the former schoolteacher meticulously listed the names of acquaintances as they died off. He catalogued the horrors occurring around him in Kampong Chhnang province, where the Khmer
Rouge took most of his family after the fall of Phnom Penh. He also composed a short personal history, using words to construct a family tree.
On the cover of the journal, there’s an image of a happy family swimming in a lake, an incongruent opening to a diary of despair and struggle.
“Everyone works like an animal, like a machine, and there is no hope for the future,” he wrote in one of the later entries leading up to his arrest in early August 1976. The Khmer Rouge had exposed his supposedly imperialist background by discovering photos of him on a trip to the United States.
When he was carted off to prison, after living for more than a year under the watchful eyes of soldiers, he passed the book off to his children. They kept it concealed inside their clothing, tied together with a piece of string. While in detention, Yuonly starved to death. The diary stayed in family hands for the next 35 years.
“It is about our own family record, events and what happened to us, and whatever else he knew. He was a teacher, so I think he would have written more if he had more books and time,” Poch Viseth Neary, his 50-year-old daughter, said.
The family donated the rare text to the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-CAM) on Friday so that it might be better preserved among the centre’s historical archives.
“He did not tell us the reason he wrote it, but we know that his words were meant to help us to take care of each other if he did not survive,” she said. “He wrote it for our family, other relatives, or his next grandchildren.”
It was a bold and dissident thing to do. The Khmer Rouge ranked expository writing in the condemned realm of bourgeoisie life. Teachers and members of the educated class were targeted for the same associations, and many went to incredible lengths to hide telltale signs of loftier origins. Yuonly, however, put down his profession and wrote about the fates of other schoolteachers.
Not all writing was wiped out. Cadres did keep notebooks for appointments and schedules, and sometimes, in the margins, they succumbed to the urge to scribble secret love notes and private thoughts.
Youk Chhang, the executive director of DC-CAM, said he’s collected more than 500 notebooks from cadres, but he knows of only four or five diaries from victims that survived the era. Chhang’s own sister hid a diary under her bed in Banteay Mancheay province, until their mother convinced her to destroy it.
The amount of extant diaries is so small that the donation startled Chhang. Neary’s husband, Poch Sophorn, handed it to him at a screening of a documentary film on May 31, and asked if the centre might like to keep it.
“When I saw this, my heart was thumping,” he said in a recent interview in his office, gingerly turning the pages.
In an email to Sophorn a few hours after the donation, he called the diary “a memory of a nation shared by all Cambodians”, and said he would “treasure it in our archives for many others, including Cambodian children, to learn from this important part of our history.”
The plan is to translate the book from Khmer into English and present it in a readable format, Chhang said, though he didn’t provide an estimated date.
Chhang was still reading through the diary himself, describing it as a mix of autobiography and a journal of events with small scenes. The entries date near the fall of Phnom Penh in April of 1975 to the summer of 1976. There are about 160 numbered pages.
“He talked about how his wife missed the kids. He talked about food,” Chhang said.
His eyes landed on a passage about sickness in which Yuonly seems to be addressing one of his children.
“Your mother took two of these [pieces of jewellery] to exchange 18 pills of medicine for them,” he wrote. “The medicine was not enough for me.”
In another sentence, he said to everyone and no one in particular, “Our family has to continue to maintain and help each other.”
Neary was one of nine siblings, three of whom died under the Khmer Rouge. One brother was beaten to death and thrown into the forest after he stole a pig to eat. Her mother survived the regime and is alive today.
Her father’s troubles started when he grew sick and was denied his portion of watery porridge. There was no medicine, and he fainted while trying to work. Neary had to catch fish for him to eat.
After the Khmer Rouge discovered his personal photos, he was imprisoned in Kampong Tralach Leu district in Kampong Chhnang province, where he died.
In recent years, Neary has revisited the place to pray for her father’s soul.
A few of the old leaders who mistreated her family in Kampong Chhnang are still around today, but she wants to leave the score-settling to a higher power.
“I still recognise them. They deserve the same as what they did to my family and other Cambodians,” she said. “I adhere to Buddha, who advises that to do good is to receive good; do evil, and receive evil.”