In the early 1970s, villagers in Phnom Penh’s Dangkor district knew the terrifying conclusion to the sound of a sky-high whistle. Savage and merciless infighting between Khmer Rouge cadre and US-backed Lon Nol government soldiers meant the district was constantly bombarded. It’s a time many would like to forget.
But one of the villagers in the district’s Choeung Ek commune has dedicated his life to collecting relics of this violent era and turning them into beautiful, if poignant, reminders of that painful time in Cambodian history.
The café in Sung Kea’s traditional wooden house, located about two kilometres from the macabre Khmer Rouge killing fields, is brightly and carefully decorated with remnants of the explosive clashes between Lon Nol and Khmer Rouge factions, a time when an estimated 539,129 tonnes of explosives rained from the sky.
The reason he created Bomb Café, 42-year-old Kea said, was not to dwell on bad memories, or stoke his desire for revenge, but to share the past with the new generations of Cambodians who have not known war.
“That is a message that I send to the weapon producers: to use weapons in the right way for peace in their area and country. Do not use it for aggression or killing good people,” Kea, who was an infant during the civil war, said.
On each of the restaurant’s tables, old bombs are displayed, but the bombs have been transformed into flower vases in which Kea keeps white, pink and red roses.
Everywhere around the wooden house are reminders of the fighting. But Kea has gone further afield than Choeung Ek to develop his collection.
Bomb Café now houses remnants of war collected from every house in the village, as well as ones from a pagoda in Prey Veng province and field trips to Kampong Speu, Takeo, Kampong Cham and Phnom Penh.
While the café owner is clearly proud of his collection, he says he is not ignorant of the dark times during the war, times he says still linger in the minds of family and neighbours.
“My mother is still frightened about the war until now, and she bought [longlife] food such as prahok and salt during the national election in 1998 because she was afraid war would occur again,” he said.
A trench in the north of his property on 7 Karara, or 7 January, road is another grisly reminder of what his own mother, with newborn Kea in her arms, endured.
“Every house had to have a trench [at that time] so they can protect themselves from the bombs. Many villagers are still scared that one day the bombs could come again,” he said.
Kea is not the only one who has taken relic weapons and given them a new life. He said many Khmer people had found industrious uses for old bombs, turning them into everything from cooking pots to axes to plows to mosquito net apparatus.
However, Kea also said he is well aware of the dangers associated with this ingenious form of recycling. Many fellow war relic collectors have been killed or crippled through accidental explosions of the ammunition.
It’s with that in mind that Kea has selected his employees from among those disabled or orphaned by warfare, he says, in order to give them a “fresh start”.
“Please consider the source of violence, poverty and lacking of education of our people – that comes from the war, and that is the torture,” he said.
As far as his own collecting techniques, he said he has learned how to identify exploded ordnance and is still searching for new additions to the restaurant.
“I have to convince the villagers who have those old things, and I buy new wood for exchanging with them,” Kea said, laughing.
Although Bomb Café only recently opened its doors for business, the process of collecting war remnants has been a 12-year mission.
Khan Sokhorn, vice chief of Prek Bronak village in Choeung Ek commune, said that the area where the restaurant stands was a place of particularly fierce fighting from 1974 to 1975. He pointed to nearby palm trees, which still bear scars of battles.
“Pol Pot soldiers stayed near the palm trees, and the [Lon Nol] government soldiers shot at them, causing the palm trees to be cut apart and destroyed in parts,” Sokhorn said.
He said he is proud of the Bomb Café owner, who put such long hours into researching and collecting the weapons and equipment that now serve as such a potent reminder of that time.
“That is big work that some people cannot do,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at [email protected]