They were savagely beaten, slashed with machetes and pushed into pits stocked with rice husks that were set ablaze. The ashes and decomposed bodies fused into fertilizer to be scattered over the rice fields.
It was four gray skulls resting on a bed of jumbled bones that again triggered Chea Nouen’s memories — breast-feeding her baby with her hands and feet shackled; her husband thrown into a pit to be turned into human fertilizer, her own marches to the killing fields where she was saved three times by an executioner.
The past came hurtling back earlier this month when a new mass grave was discovered in this village in north-western Cambodia, one of the bloodiest killing grounds in the country. Like most of Cambodia’s some 300 known mass grave clusters, it is not being investigated or exhumed to find out what happened.
More than three decades after the Khmer Rouge ultra-revolutionaries orchestrated the deaths of nearly two million people, or one out of every four Cambodians, this country has not laid its ghosts to rest. Cambodia’s regime prefers to literally bury the past, especially since some of its current leaders, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, were once Khmer Rouge.
But 63-year-old Ms. Chea Nouen and other survivors in this small, farming community cannot forget, hold their tears in check or banish the nightmares when they daily tread over the unexamined bones of 35,000 victims and live among restless souls that still hover, they believe, over homes and rice fields. Also unfinished is the pursuit of justice — Neither the three top Khmer Rouge leaders nor local executioners have been punished, with the exception of a controversial jail sentence of 19 years for the former prison chief known as Comrade Duch.
In April, Ms. Chea Nouen was invited to the capital, Phnom Penh, to hear a top Khmer Rouge official, Nuon Chea, offer his defence to a U.N.-backed tribunal- I didn’t know. I was just carrying out orders. It’s an exaggeration. The U.N. and the tribunal say they are following the law. But Ms. Chea Nouen calls the trial “an absurdity,” incredulous that it has taken six years, $160 million and mountains of documents to prove a case against three now feeble octogenarians when all seems so clear to the villagers at Do Dontrei.
“At my age and health, I cannot confront the Khmer Rouge,” says the 63-year-old woman. “But I would be pleased to tell my story.”
She contorts her body, demonstrating how her legs and arms were bound to an iron bar. Her face grimaces in remembered pain. A soldier points a pistol to her temple, another searches her body for hidden valuables. In shock, she drops her two-month-old son to the prison floor. For seven days, almost sleepless and surviving on just water, she cradles her child, twisting her body to allow him to suckle at her breasts.
Their family, with two children, had been arrested one morning while riding in an ox-cart. A day after her release, her husband was taken away to the foot of a hill, close by the recently discovered grave, where the Khmer Rouge vented their hatred of former government soldiers like him with singular fury.
Blindfolded, hands tied behind their backs, they were savagely beaten, slashed with machetes and pushed into pits stocked with rice husks that were set ablaze. The ashes and decomposed bodies fused into fertilizer to be scattered over the rice fields.
Although still under official arrest, Ms. Chea Nouen was released to a Khmer Rouge complex that included dormitories, a warehouse and communal dining. One of her sons succumbed to illness, the other died of starvation.
Of the hundreds of workers who passed through the centre, all of them women, only seven survived the deprivation and a methodical killing machine not unlike those at Nazi concentration camps. Executions took place once or twice a week, with batches of 60 to 80 prisoners, and often timed to the fertilizer production. The remains from the grave were placed in a makeshift shrine under the shade of three palm trees, and the villagers of Do Dontrei brought soup, rice, desserts and a little money to the crude altar as offerings.
They worry that the spirits are troubled. There is a widespread belief in Cambodia that the bones of the deceased especially those who met violent deaths should be collected, cremated and prayed over lest they remain in the place they died to haunt the living.