A S the convoy trundled along the road to a pair of shallow graves in Kampong Speu,
Heng Sopheary wore casual clothes, a krama around her neck and fresh make-up on her
face. She appeared relaxed; it was not the first time that she had been taken to
a grave to see if it was her husband's.
Krouch Yoeum, the 61-year-old Undersecretary of State for Defense, had been missing
since the July fighting in Phnom Penh, but Sopheary still held out hope that her
husband was somehow still alive.
"Until I can see his dead body with my own eyes, I won't believe that my husband
has died," said Sopheary, aged 31, an hour before she arrived at the grave.
"I had been told many times that my husband's grave was here and there, but
it was not his body when I went and checked," she told fellow passengers on
the way to Lor village, Oudong district about 40kms west of Phnom Penh, Oct 15.
Accompanied by United Nations Center for Human Rights staff whose investigations
had uncovered the double gravesite, Sopheary looked composed as she told stories
about her husband and other Funcinpec officials.
"My husband had been sick. He had just come back from a hospital in Bangkok
two days before the fighting. He was persuaded by [General Nhek] Bun Chhay to go
to Tang Krasang camp and he got stuck there," she recalled.
Occasionally Sopheary looked sad, but other times she smiled and even laughed. Remembering
how she was told her husband joined Nhek Bun Chhay's desperate break-out from Tang
Krasang, heading through the jungle for northwestern Cambodia, she exclaimed: "My
husband is too fat! I was afraid he could not run such a long way like that."
She remembered how she met her husband in Bangkok in early 1991 when she was in Thailand
taking a beauticians' course. Krouch Yoeum was a one-star general at the time with
royalist resistance forces on the Cambodian-Thai border.
She had been staying with a cousin's sister in Bangkok. Yoeum, who used to work with
her now-deceased uncle as a teacher in Battambang during the Sihanouk regime, used
to visit her.
"He would often have meals at my house," she recounted simply. "Then
As the convoy of human rights workers neared the graves, Sopheary spoke fondly of
one of her husband's friends and colleagues, Ho Sok, who was executed July 7 after
being captured by CPP forces.
"At least twice a month he used to come to my house," she recalled of Ho
Sok. "Sometimes I made noodle soup for him instead of a full meal. He ate it;
he didn't mind."
Her children always asked Ho Sok to sing Karaoke and he obliged them. "He was
gentle ... He was funny and simple," she said, "He could sing Karaoke very
Sopheary knew that Ho Sok was now dead, but she still hoped her husband had escaped
the same fate. She explained her husband had last been seen alive by his bodyguards
on a big hill near Damnak Smach village on the evening of July 7. Nhek Bun Chhay
was on one side of the hill, and Krouch Yoeum and fellow Funcinpec officer Chao Sambath
were on the other.
Yoeum and Sambath, with about 20 soldiers, were captured while Bun Chhay managed
to slip through the dragnet, the bodyguards told her.
Several CPP soldiers approached Yoeum and his men readied a B40 rocket to greet them,
but he ordered them to hold their fire, she said.
"They approached my husband and asked 'Are you Nhek Bun Chhay?'" she recounted.
"They thought that my husband was Bun Chhay!"
The two generals and their men were detained in a school near Damnak Smach village,
and the generals later separated from their soldiers. That was the last time either
were seen alive by their bodyguards.
Two weeks ago, human rights workers discovered two graves in the forest near Lor
village. They suspected they could be those of Yoeum and Sambath, and asked Sopheary
to come and try to identify her husband's body.
As the convey reached its destination, Sopheary joined rights workers and journalists
at the gravesite, tying her krama around her sun hat. She had not arranged for a
coffin or bought a plastic sheet to wrap up the corpse. She didn't expect the body
to be her husband's, or even that she would be able to identify it if it had been
in the ground a long time.
She did, however, remember what her husband was wearing the last time she saw him.
"He was wearing athletic shoes and an American army uniform with four big pockets,"
As rights workers drained water from the first grave and began exhuming the body,
a monk passed by. They asked him to come and pray, and Sopheary lit some incense.
The first things they found were the shoes. She was shocked. "Look! There are
his shoes," she cried. "That's him. That's him," she repeated over
and over through her tears.
Then they found Yoeum's army identification card. By now Sopheary was sobbing uncontrollably.
"People said that you had been executed, but I did not believe them. But now
I know it is true," she wailed as she wiped dust from the card.
Yoeum's body was pulled out of the grave, his hands cut off and legs crossed and
bound. One bullet and two spent cartridges were found in the grave.
"My husband was not killed in the battle at all. They killed him later,"
Local people knew about the execution, but kept silent because they thought they
would have problems if they said anything, according to a boy herding cows nearby.
"One evening I saw a 'Commanka' [Russian jeep] covered with a tarpaulin come
here," the boy said, adding that it had come from a school near the village
where 20 royalist soldiers had been held. "A few minutes later I heard about
Before Sopheary was allowed to take her husband's body, six local policemen armed
with B40 rockets and AK47s prevented her from doing so for half an hour. She asked
for their compassion; they asked for her money. Eventually, after being given 110,000
riels, they allowed the group to leave.
The other body, suspected of being Chao Sambath's, was left in the grave until his
relatives could be taken there to identify it. (Sambath's family later cancelled
a trip there because they were afraid, according to rights workers.)
Sopheary, meanwhile, was left pondering her husband's murder, one of more than 40
excecutions which UN rights workers have alleged occured after the July fighting.
"In our country they kill people easily... illegally," she said, choking
back tears. "I would not mind if my husband had been sent to trial. They should
have given him a chance to talk before they killed [him], if they found him guilty."
She speculated that a higher-ranking officer had ordered the execution. "Normally
the low-ranking respect the high-ranking. My husband was a three-star general. I
don't think a simple soldier could order the execution on his own."
Referring to statements made by Hun Sen, she said: "They said no one had been
executed but Ho Sok. But you see? They cut my husband's hands off before they killed
Sopheary did not mention it, but others remembered that Yoeum had, in a way, foreshadowed
Ho Sok's death back in April this year. Then, Yoeum said publicly that he was called
to a meeting by Hun Sen the night before the exiled Prince Norodom Sirivudh's unsuccessful
bid to return to Cambodia. At the meeting, Hun Sen threatened to kill Nhek Bun Chhay
and Ho Sok if they tried to protect Sirivudh from being arrested, Yoeum said.
Sopheary arranged for Yoeum's body to be cremated at Phnom Penh's Wat Lanka the day
after it was unearthed. As with an earlier ceremony she had held to mark her husband's
disappearance, she didn't invite high-ranking Funcinpec officials; she didn't think
they would want to be associated with her husband.
But First Prime Minister Ung Huot, co-Minister of Interior You Hockry and other party
officials arrived at the cremation to pay their respects.
Ministry of Interior official Kieng Vang told reporters that he was convinced Yoeum
was not killed during fighting, but afterward. Ung Huot, meanwhile, declined to comment
Leaving the funeral, Huot and his wife exchanged polite farewells with Sopheary.
As Huot walked to his car, Sopheary said to the Prime Minister's wife: "Thank
you, sister, for coming. And please, happiness be with you. Don't have bad luck like