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from the November 2015 issue

The Keeper: Oum Sophany

"If we disappear, we die"– Oum Sophany, 1975

April in Cambodia is dry. The temperature reaches a thick 35 degrees Celsius each day and there is no reprieve. The broken streets of Phnom Penh, which flood to waist deep in the monsoon months of June to September, are bleached as old bones; the sky glares down with a sharp blue eye.

I return to Cambodia in April 2009, having seen it only in the monsoon, and the heat is a shock. People, motorbikes, markets, and noise throng Phnom Penh, but there is a desolation and an impermanence to it all—as though everything is about to be packed up and taken away.

It was here, forty years ago—on April 14, 1975—that a twenty-nine-year-old student, Oum Sophany, made an entry in her diary in the heat of the day: “April is the month in which cicada cries fill up the room,” she wrote, sitting in her family home in the center of Phnom Penh, surrounded by mango and banana trees. “They cry with all their hearts. Their cries spiral down from the top of the trees, hitting the earth down below, intriguingly echoing and filling the air.”

At the time, her note seemed insignificant: a woman recording daily events as part of her practice as a writer. Sophany was a student of archaeology and engaged to be married.

But just days after that diary entry, Phnom Penh was evacuated and the city became the site of mass torture and death at the hands of the the Khmer Rouge while the rest of the country was turned into a hard labor camp for the next four years. These changes were so drastic and so terrible that most wouldn’t live to see the end of it. Sophany did. And so did her diary.

 

The first time I meet Sophany is at a writers conference in Phnom Penh. Writing in Cambodia is still a political act. Literary organizations receive death threats for their activities, which range from holding writers symposiums to producing multilingual literary journals—hardly punishable offenses in most countries. The writers persist despite this, and the conference is packed with authors, teachers, students, and monks.

Sophany is tiny in the huge audience, but her eyes gleam with mirth. At question time, instead of speaking, she stands and sings in a tremulous soprano, her hands moving graceful as an egret in the style of dance that Cambodian girls learn at school. The song she sings is called “Inhuman Torture”—she wrote it in a Khmer Rouge labor camp:

Leave, leave, leave
I now leave you Phnom Penh,
With endless suffering . . .

After the conference, Sophany gives me a copy of her autobiographical 1988 novel Under the Drops of Falling Rain, first published in English in 2011 by Boeng Tonle Sap. On the cover is a photograph of Sophany as a girl with long black hair, her arms blurred, moving. “There was no music, but I danced,” Sophany tells me as she presses the book into my hands.

I read it back in my apartment near the Tonle Sap River with the April heat blasting over me, then make a note in my own diary: “Such a brilliant novel. Absolutely brilliant. A meeting with her tomorrow at 9 a.m. . . .I like her so much.”

Sophany’s home, when I finally locate it the next day in the numberless streets, is a spacious two-story house with shiny tiled floors. Sophany opens the door wearing a bright geometric-print top and shows me inside, limping slightly as a result of cancer treatment. Along the walls of the huge central lounge and dining room are carefully kept files of her writing: published, unpublished, and in production. Along with her writing there are CDs on which Sophany is a featured singer, artwork (she is a visual artist who has illustrated a number of her own book covers), and photographs, in color and black-and-white. There is also her diary—a timeworn, coffee-colored notebook dating from 1975 to ’79, the period of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Sophany pulls the diary from a white plastic folder and lays it carefully on the table next to the handwritten original of her 1980 memoir, When We Will Never Meet Again (translated into French, but not English). The entries for the diary and the memoir are recorded in neat, curving Khmer script. Sophany wrote about the sound of the cicadas in the April heat in the first entry on April 14, 1975, then she described how Chaul Chnam Thmey, the Cambodian New Year, had just begun. Her family ate, played games, and presented special gifts to her parents, but their celebrations were subdued. The usual three days of Buddhist ceremony that would have marked the new year were overshadowed by civil war—the aftermath of eleven years of war in neighboring Vietnam and the United States’ extensive secret bombing campaign over Cambodia .

“This year wasn’t like any other year,” Sophany wrote. “Nobody dared to walk around on the streets for fear of getting killed by the bombs. Early New Year’s morning, I saw smoke black as charcoal floating up the sky at Toul Kork [a central Phnom Penh district], indicating a devastating fire.”

Sophany was born in 1946 next to the Royal Palace and had seen Cambodia regain independence from French colonial rule. Her sisters were teachers and journalists and the house was filled with books. “Some people like clothes and some people like jewelry, but me? I like books,” she says. When she was a girl, Sophany would write poems about her family. “When my father bought a Peugeot car, I made up a poem about it. I just composed it for fun, but actually I was on my path to become a writer.”

 

By 1975, when she was at Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts studying archaeology, the political environment had changed. A military coup had overthrown the monarchy, deposing King Norodom Sihanouk and establishing Lon Nol as Prime Minister of the newly formed republic. Meanwhile, and unbeknown to many city dwellers, the Khmer Rouge were gathering power in the provinces. Rural people saw the stark difference between their poverty-stricken conditions and the comparatively luxurious lives of those living in cities like Battambong and Phnom Penh—and they wanted change.

“At this time, I couldn’t travel,” says Sophany. “As an archaeology student I was supposed to go to the provinces to see temples, but . . .” She explains that in the new republic she wasn’t allowed to go to the countryside in case people thought she was from the wrong political side.

By April 15, 1975, the civil war was so bad that Sophany and her fiancé, Sounan, crammed into a car with people intending to escape to Thailand. They found themselves driving through eerily empty streets and took shelter in the Royal University of Fine Arts when the bombing started. Sophany realized that she might never see her own family again.

“I looked toward the south;” she wrote in her diary, “toward my home—the foundation of my happiness that consisted of my parents and my siblings.” That night when the bombs got too close, they escaped the school and drove back to Sophany’s home. Sophany wrote: “I do not wish to go to Siam, for there’s nothing more joyful than being with your loved ones.”

Of the next morning, journalist John Pilger reported that “shortly after dawn on April seventeenth, the bombing stopped and there was silence. Then out of the forests came the victors, the Khmer Rouge.”

Sophany made another diary entry: “White flags were displayed in front of every household, celebrating this historical event . . .  ‘They said it’s the victory over the Americans. What does that mean?’ In front of my house, we also tied up a white flag indicating surrender and celebration over the regime. I thought, ‘Perhaps, we will finally get peace now. There won’t be any more war. There won’t be any more liberation zone either.’ I was excited about the places that I wanted to visit.”

In the morning, Khmer Rouge cadres—many of them rural teenagers who had never seen a city, and were trained up and given guns—yelled that the Americans were going to attack and that Phnom Penh had to be evacuated. They fired their guns in the air to show they were serious. A jeep passed Sophany’s house filled with Khmer Rouge. “Everyone in the car was dressed in black, wearing khaki hats and kroma [checkered scarves],” Sophany wrote. “I don’t know why, but the mere sight of them sent chills down my spine. I was terrified.”

Across the city, two million people put down what they were doing and hurried out of their houses and apartments, believing they would be back in a few days. Sophany and her parents and six sisters did the same. Years later, people returning to Phnom Penh would find breakfast things laid out on tables, covered in dust, where they’d been abandoned years before.

 

The evacuation of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, was declared by the Khmer Rouge to be “Year Zero.” The new Communist regime aspired to a pre–industrial-style agrarian society, freed of the evils of modern life. Intellectuals—including artists and writers, professionals, religious figures, government personnel, people who could speak a Western language, and people who wore glasses—were targeted. The anti-intellectual genocide would claim up to two million lives over the next four years through disease, overwork, starvation, torture, and murder.

Sophany’s response to atrocity is to write about it. Because of the testimonies contained in her diary and her memoir, Sophany volunteered as a Civil Witness in the 2015 trial of Nuon Chea and Samphan Khieu, two of the most senior Khmer Rouge leaders. Pol Pot, known as “Brother Number One,” died in April 1998 before he could be tried, so the trials of Nuon Chea, “Brother Number Two,” and Samphan Khieu, head of state during the regime, were of enormous significance. Sophany told the court that during the regime when “some people who suffered or had bad feelings, they kept it inside and did not like to express it. For me, writing is the only way to let out the suffering or the sorrow I kept inside.”

With me in her Phnom Penh home, Sophany slowly turns the pages of the old diary and memoir. “You would guess that I would be killed because I kept this document,” she says, “and the thing is I was lucky. Nobody in the Pol Pot regime noticed that I had a bag full of paper and pens. Sometimes it was scary because people [who kept paper] would be killed.”

Sophany persisted in keeping diary entries over the months it took her family to reach Takeo, though she took precautions. On one of the diary pages is a picture she drew of a woman in high heels, hair held back by a crown, and a traditional outfit of a wrap-around sampot skirt and a lace top—the very image of sophisticated womanhood that the Khmer Rouge were against. Over the top, Sophany drew a thick cross through it.

“I lied with my hand,” she says, laughing now with horror, “so if they checked they would know I didn’t like it.”

She told the court: “After we left Phnom Penh, we were told that the Khmer Rouge were cruel, but I didn’t know how cruel they were. I was told repeatedly that I had to be mindful of my own affairs. So, for that reason, I kept a secret diary. Even my parents and my husband did not know that I kept [it].”

Sophany revealed to the court the horrors of the evacuation, during which twenty thousand people are estimated to have died: “Before 1975, other people, including myself, were living with families in harmony and peace and received education and were aware of the society. However, immediately after the Democratic Kampuchea took power . . . in the blink of an eye we all lost everything. I, among the others, was forced by Angkar [literarily ‘The Organization’, a term for the Khmer Rouge] to leave home and en route I saw dead bodies who died in pools of blood. The stench filled the air, and it seemed we were already in hell.”

That Sophany wasn’t sent to the same hell is incredible. That her diary survived is even more astonishing. That she wasn’t killed because of the diary is almost impossible.

“Your question might be: how can I write a diary during the Pol Pot regime?” says Sophany. “During Pol Pot, it wasn’t safe to write. You might be considered educated and killed. So I wrote quickly, so quickly. Just notes about the situation. Sometimes I pretended to be ill and stayed at home to write.”

When Sophany and her family finally arrived at the Base Camp in Takeo Province, they were labeled as “New People”—city dwellers who were new to the farms. The New People lived together in a basic coconut-leaf-wall structure, with no beds, furniture, or toilet. They were separated from the “Base People,” who were rural and considered by the Khmer Rouge to be superior. In the preface to the novel she gave me, Sophany describes “a time when things had lost all restraint . . . a society so savage that we had thought it could only exist in the legends of our past.” She worked out approximate dates for events recorded in her diary by the announcements made by the leaders of the camps over crackly loudspeakers, and by the lunar calendar.

 

In an atrocity as vast and incomprehensible as genocide, a diary provides a window against which we can press our faces to watch not only the horrors but also the daily struggles of life. On February 9, 1976, ten months after the evacuation of Phnom Penh, Sophany recorded a change at the camp:

Angkar made a new plan, mixing the New People with the Base People . . .  We lived together in the kitchen of the people in Prakeab Khang Thoung. They mobilized us in such a way so that it was easy for them to control us. If we lived with the New People, we could secretly talk about, or recall the old memories when we lived in Phnom Penh. Unfortunately, since we lived with the Base People, we had to keep silent like mutes, like the deaf. We only used our eye to watch the road ahead, the work site, and our mouth to eat.

Pretending to be mute, deaf, and illiterate was something that many New People did during that time. Even poet U Sam Oeur, who grew up on a farm in rural Cambodia, burned his manuscripts and feigned illiteracy. There are other stories of people forgetting how to read and write, years of trauma rendering them illiterate.

The months of terror and silence took their toll on Sophany. On November 18, 1976, she made another diary entry: “Every day, frankly speaking, we appear to live unhappily because I did not have energy as others. I could not dare to sing, dance, speak, laugh loudly. Our regular routine activities were sleeping, walking and eating.”

Sophany read this entry out in court as a civil witness in the trial prosecuting Nuon Chea and Samphan Khieu. Sophany’s lawyer then clarified, “‘Was that your thirtieth birthday? You were born on November eighteenth, is that correct?”

“That is correct,” Sophany answered.

Sophany worked as a “rice farmer”—a glamorized term for ditch digging. Khmer Rouge propaganda footage from the 1970s shows people moving quickly, almost running in ordered lines while carrying earth in baskets over their shoulders. The effect is of an awful dance.

Many people worked up to twenty-four hours at a time, often sleeping in the fields that they were digging. Any time that might have once been spent with family no longer existed. Sophany and Sounan were wed in the Base Camp without their parents or friends present. Sophany became pregnant and was forced to tend to cows all through her pregnancy. It was exhausting work and when she got stomach pains, a nurse told her that her baby was dead. Luckily, labor was not induced, and later she gave birth to a daughter, alive and well.

Through the exhaustion and the fear, Sophany still wrote. “I like books. I like my inscription,” she tells me, her eyes bright. “When I write, I don’t want to throw it out. I want to keep it with me. Because when I write, and then I read it again, oh! I remember.”

In Under the Drops of Falling Rain, Sophany described how those who didn’t “disappear” were quashed as the regime took away their culture. “This was one of Angkar’s ways of killing us since it made our imaginations die by causing them to shrivel and run dry. Our hearts withered and we became reclusive and sad. It was as if we had died from within while continuing to live on the outside. During this time of this savage regime, even music, which I had loved, became something that I hated,” she wrote.

At times, Sophany’s inner defiance and her refusal to be subdued burst through her silence. Her son tells a story of how she once stood up to the camp leader during a meeting. Terrified, Sophany’s mother begged the cadre not to listen, that Sophany was crazy, and she was spared. Others were not. Sophany’s brother-in-law, a doctor, was taken away after only nine days at the Base Camp and never seen again. Later, Sophany found records that said he was killed in the infamous Tuol Sleng “S-21” prison in Phnom Penh, where twenty thousand prisoners were murdered. Sophany’s mother, father, and four of her six sisters also died in the camps.

 

The Khmer Rouge regime ended in January 1979, when Vietnamese troops marched into Phnom Penh. The Vietnamese soldiers barely had enough food for themselves, let alone the millions who were starving throughout Cambodia, and they were unable to rule the decimated country properly. The following eleven years following decade of Vietnamese rule was grim.

Occasionally though, artefacts and knowledge from before Year Zero would turn up. A family who had buried their collection of records by “The Golden Voice,” Sinn Sisamouth, beneath their house returned to find that they were still there and could be printed again. A royal dancer who survived the labor camps went on to teach new generations ancient dance phrases. The Friends-International aid organization scoured the country, tracking down recipes from old cooks to recreate meals for tongues that hadn’t tasted them in decades, or were born too late to know them at all.

Sophany emerged from one of the most brutal regimes in modern history with her husband, her daughter, two sisters, a dress, a diary, and a homemade bathing suit. The swimsuit is as impossible as the diary: a deep pink with a swirl of white beading over the triangle bodices. In the camp, she was given some material to make work clothes and instead she made a bathing suit.

“I wanted to go to the sea to take a bath,” Sophany says, putting the suit up against her body to show me that it would still fit, “so in the Pol Pot regime I made this. Because in my mind, I went for a swim.” These words offer some clue as to Sophany’s survival—luck, yes, but also the sheer tenacity of an artist who refuses to let go of a dream, even in the face of death.

Now, Sophany sits at the vast wooden table that dominates her lounge room, glasses resting on her nose, and the photographic and written accounts of her life organized into neat piles in front of her. She shows me that her writing didn’t start or end at Pol Pot, and that her resourcefulness extended beyond the regime. In 1980, a year after the Khmer Rouge were defeated by Vietnamese troops, Sophany got to work. She used her training in archaeology to inspect monuments throughout Cambodia to assess the impact of the regime on national treasures. When she submitted her extensive report, the director of the project shook his head.

“My director said to me, ‘Sophany! Your report is very long, like a novel. Reports aren’t like this…’ because when I write it is filled with emotion.” She smiles. “I am just like this. I am a novelist.” At the same time she continued to produce new work, some of her older work re-emerged. “When I was a student I wrote a poem and sent it to my friend in England,” she says. “After the Pol Pot regime, my friend found the poem and sent it back. I felt so happy, like I got the golden coconut!”

Sophany has translated Hélène Cixous’ eight-hour 1994 play The Terrible But Unfinished Story of Norodom Sihanouk, King of Cambodia, a project for which she received an Asian Cultural Council grant. “I don’t know if it’s good or not, but I did it, I translated it from French into Cambodian,” she says, proud but nervous. “I don’t know because,” Sophany lowers her voice, “it’s political. I do know the story is good but I don’t know [if what it is saying] is good because: political. When you are outside the country, you can open your mind, but because I am inside I cannot.”

She turns back to the old photographs. “I had a sister-in-law who wanted to bury photographs in the earth [before the evacuation] because she was afraid they would be lost and I said I would do it,” Sophany says. “Keep, keep, keep. When the regime was finished she said ‘Sophany, I’m so happy because now we have these memories.’”

As she picks through the pictures, she points out friends and family members and her smile leaves her face. “She died, she died, he died,” she murmurs, almost to herself.

She reaches for a black-and-white photo from the early ’70s of her as a student, standing outside the School of Fine Arts with a friend. They are wearing pale shirts and three-quarter skirts, their faces are full and bright. Sophany’s smile returns. “The friend in this photo is still alive.”

 

Interviews with Oum Sophany were conducted by Laura Jean McKay and former Phnom Penh Post reporter (now ABC reporter) Rosa Ellen, and are incorporated here with her permission. Information was also sourced from court transcripts from the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea. © 2015 by Laura Jean McKay. All rights reserved.

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