F OR Kao Thol, this year's Pchum Ben - the annual celebration when Cambodians go to
pagodas to communicate with the souls of dead relatives, making offerings of food
and money to monks - was different from previous ones.
Thol's father was killed in the fierce fighting in Phnom Penh in early July, one
of dozens of victims of political violence which has marked 1997.
"This year was especially touching because my father has just died," said
Thol of the 15-day festivities for the dead. "My sadness was as big as the ocean.
My father and I had a lot of memories together.
"We called on him to come and receive the offering which we gave to heal his
soul," Thol, 33, explained of his visit to a wat on the first day of Pchum Ben.
"If he committed any sins before he died, those sins will be lessened."
Thol said his mother lit incense and prayed for her lost husband. "She had tears
in her eyes for the soul of her husband. When she talks about my father, she always
has tears in her eyes."
A former government accountant in Kampong Thom who now works as a moto-taxi driver
in Phnom Penh, he explained that his 57-year-old father was killed July 6 after forces
loyal to Hun Sen squeezed Funcinpec's General Nhek Bun Chhay and his followers out
of the neighboring Tang Krasang military base.
"There was heavy fighting and the house was burning so my father ran to the
east, carrying only his radio. He was trying to escape because there was too much
fire. A few other people were with him, running too. They heard shooting. Those in
front of him dove to the ground to avoid being shot, to protect themselves, but two
bullets went into my father's chest and came out his back."
Sitting on the floor of the simple wooden house he is rebuilding with his wife to
replace the one that burned to the ground in the fighting, Thol said some of the
men who were with his father at the time had told him how the tragedy occurred.
Asked who killed his father, he calmly replied: "I think that the government
side killed my father because the other side had already escaped. I think the government
side did not know [Nhek Bun Chhay's troops] had escaped. When they saw a group of
men running, they assumed they were the enemy."
Pchum Ben brought some small sense of closure, Thol said. But the sense of loss in
his soft, quivering voice is palpable: "I felt relief for my sadness when I
offered food to the Buddhist monks because we believe that when we make offerings
or hold traditional celebrations his spirit can receive what we have given."
Thol, married with two children, said government assistance - 40,000 riels to him
and 1 million riels to his mother - had helped ease some of the economic burdens
of losing his home and his father. But money alone could never compensate for the
loss. "[My father] was our supporter in everything, with ideas, with money.
When we needed money we asked him. It is better than asking outside the family. He
gave good advice, too."
For other Phnom Penh people, like 20-year-old monk Ros Sang, this year's Pchum Ben
hit far closer to home than usual. Sang lost his 12-year-old brother Ros Sea on March
30, victim of the grenade attack on a Khmer Nation Party rally.
As a monk, Sang normally only receives offerings from lay people at Wat Mohamontrey,
but this year he brought family members to the pagoda to give "ben" and
remember the boy who, out of curiosity, had chosen to linger at the protest in front
of the National Assembly on March 30.
"That day he did not have school so he went for a walk, and saw the demonstration
and decided to stay. It was by chance," Sang said, tears welling in his eyes.
"This year I dedicated a special prayer to his spirit. I wished that my brother
would be reborn in peace in his next life and I wished that our country would find
peace too, to avoid this bloodshed that is killing more and more people."
Another monk at Wat Mohamontrey, Vat Ti said he spent Pchum Ben commemorating the
spirit of his cousin, Yoeun Yan, who was killed alongside Ros Sea.
"This year is special because my cousin was killed by violence... he did not
die of natural causes," the 35 year-old-monk said. "A lot of innocent people
have been killed in unexpected events [this year]."
Vat Ti and Ros Sang said their families had received 100,000 riel and $100 compensation
from Khmer Nation Party President Sam Rainsy, who had organized the protest. They
said they had heard that King Norodom Sihanouk had promised to give $1,000 to the
families of the grenade attack victims, but the money had never reached them.
"My cousin was cremated in Wat Lanka and the King promised to give some money.
But later there was a coup and maybe because of the confusion, we have not yet received
anything. If it is not coming, that is fine, but we want to know if we should expect
it," Vat Ti said.
Soeun Savy, a third monk whose brother was wounded in the grenade attack, said he
wished the government would pursue and capture those responsible for the massacre.
"The grenade attack was a serious thing and up until now the government has
ignored it. It was very sad for the families of the victims. The government remains
cold, and has not found any suspects. I am eager to know who did it."
Ou Bun Long, of the Khmer Buddhist Society, noted that the political and economic
climate has tempered this year's offerings for the dead. Rumors of continued political
instability and a downturn in the economy have caused many families to cancel plans
to visit family members or far-away pagodas, he said. "This year, people don't
want to travel too far. They cut down on their plans... Everybody complains now."
Secretary of State for Religion Hien Vanniroth said that political turmoil did indeed
affect the celebration of the dead and that "everyone wishes for peace for Cambodia,
to bring a good life to the country."
Despite the worries, he estimated that 70-80% of Cambodians visited pagodas during
the 15-day celebration leading up to October 1.
At Wat Botum, about 100 yards from the site of the grenade massacre, thousands of
people spent the last day of the festivities trying to bring peace to the souls of
those they have lost.
Monks and the needy were fed sticky rice stuffed with bananas or pork by lay people.
Incense and phony money burned in the doorways as vendors sold snacks, balloons,
toys and small birds to visitors. "If you let a bird go, you are setting a spirit
free," Hien Vanniroth explained later.
Legend has it that those who do not make offerings to their ancestors will be cursed,
but Ou Bun Long said it is not so cut-and-dried. "The people believe that on
the fifteenth day, all of your ancestors go looking for you. If they don't find you
at the temple, you can feel like something is missing."
It is not uncommon for families to visit more than one temple, in the belief that
their ancestors' spirits can roam in different places looking for their relatives.
Chet Chin - father of journalist and KNP bodyguard Chet Duong Daravuth, killed in
the grenade attack - was one of those who visited several temples this year.
He said he saw fewer people attending the pagodas he went to than usual, becasue
of the "miserable political and economic situation".
"I was reminded of my son who has died," Chin said of Pchum Ben, from his
living room which bears many photos of Daravuth. "I will always think of son.
I suffer because I don't see my son."
Daravuth's widow, Buth Varoun, 29, visited three pagodas during the celebration.
Asked about this year's Pchum Ben, she burst into tears and was unable to speak for
several minutes. Regaining her voice, she said: "I made an offering and called
my husband to receive it, and I prayed there would be no more killing in this country.
Never again in my life. I don't want any other people to be separated from their
loved ones like this."
Varoun, a napkin vendor at a Phnom Penh market, said Sam Rainsy gave her money after
her husband was killed and promised to take care of her forever. "That all changed
when the coup happened. [Now] I have no money and no house. I am very angry with
Daravuth's nine-year-old son also made offerings to his deceased father, while his
three-year-old daughter has yet to learn about Pchum Ben.
But, say family members, she still communicates with her father, in her own way.
Sometimes, when the little girl is sick and won't eat, she talks to a portrait of
her father which hangs over their staircase. She says: "Papa, what are you doing
up there on the wall? Come back down here."