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Small bones under the care of Grandmother Lang in Phnom Neanglem, where the Buddhist inhabitants have created peaceful routines for engaging with Khmer Rouge victims’ bones.
Small bones under the care of Grandmother Lang in Phnom Neanglem, where the Buddhist inhabitants have created peaceful routines for engaging with Khmer Rouge victims’ bones. Eliah Lillis

The remote village finding ways to live alongside war’s human remains

When Nou Pharng, 48, found a skeleton in her garden still wearing the trademark red krama of the Khmer Rouge, the first thing she did was ask the dead body for winning lottery numbers.

“I’m not scared of bones,” Pharng explains matter-of-factly, as she sits cradling her granddaughter in the sweltering heat of her Battambang home.

“We invited a monk to the house and celebrated a small dedication ceremony for the ghost, and then it made me dream about lottery numbers.”

The lottery numbers the ghost gave her turned out to be the right ones. Pharng won $100 and used the money to bring the bones and other offerings to the local pagoda. Her neighbours told her it would bring bad luck to keep the bones on her property, and she wanted the skeleton’s spirit to be happy.

“I think she wanted to go to the pagoda, that’s why she gave us such exact lottery numbers,” Pharng says. “I believe she is peacefully reincarnated now.”

Pharng’s village of Reaksmei Songha, in the Ratanak Mondol district of Battambang, is home to around 400 families of farmers. One long dirt road stretches through the centre of the village, and cows meander along, kicking up swirling clouds of dust. Small plots of longan trees line either side of the road.

But this peaceful village has a harsh history. During the years of Democratic Kampuchea, the town was the site of a Khmer Rouge labour camp, and a health clinic to house the gravely ill was located a short distance from Pharng’s farm. Some residents say the bodies of the sick were tossed behind the clinic after death.

According to Lim Van, 64, who lived in the area under the Khmer Rouge, Reaksmei Songha was not a site of mass executions. Van’s father was killed by Pol Pot’s regime, he says, but most people died from malaria or starvation.

“We had some food, and bananas and potatoes grew here,” Van explains. “But people worked very hard.”

When the Vietnamese invasion put an end to Democratic Kampuchea in 1979 and war broke out in the area, the town’s inhabitants fled. For years, Reaksmei Songha lay empty. Many believed the area, which was littered with antipersonnel mines placed to kill the Khmer Rouge’s enemies, was too dangerous to inhabit. Trees began to sprout and cover the area with forest.

But in 1996, a small group of intrepid farmers, including a few former residents, decided to move in. In desperate need of land to call their own, they cleared part of the forest for farming and lived as close to the road as possible in a futile attempt to avoid the landmines.

“Many people died from mines,” says Se Muny, a 34-year-old who arrived in the village almost a decade ago. “People were even killed in the pagoda … A man died last year driving a truck through his farm.”

Landmines weren’t the only leftovers of the Khmer Rouge. The town was also littered with the bones of the war dead, and villagers like Pharng would occasionally encounter full skeletons still intact when they tilled the soil.

Instead of being frightened or disturbed by the human remains, however, the town’s Buddhist inhabitants developed a peaceful routine of cohabitation and engagement with the bones. Many hoped their interactions would facilitate the reincarnation of the spirits who once inhabited the bodies. Ghost stories and myths emerged to explain the continued presence of the war dead in the town.

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Nou Pharny points to where she found an intact skeleton wearing the Khmer Rouge’s signature red krama. Eliah Lillis

According to Lisa Arensen, an academic who conducted ethnographic research in Reaksmei Songha, the villagers’ treatment of the bones illustrates what local Buddhists believe is needed for a spirit to move peacefully into the afterlife.

“In Khmer Buddhist cosmology, the fate of the spirit of the deceased is perceived as bound up in multiple and often overlapping factors, including the manner of death, the cumulative karmic merit or demerit of the deceased, and the physical treatment of the corpse,” Arensen notes.

The way the physical body is treated after death plays an important role in the “metaphysical freeing” of the spirit, contributing to whether it goes to heaven, hell or is reborn, she argues in her paper The Dead in the Land, which was published in the Journal of Asian Studies this year.

Before a soul can reincarnate, the body must be transported to the pagoda for cremation. Generally, a family member accompanies the body, and the deceased transforms into a venerated ancestor.

But during the rule of the Khmer Rouge, when traditional Buddhist ceremonies were prohibited, the dead were denied these rituals. For many Cambodians, the improper treatment of the corpses left the spirits of the deceased in limbo, doomed to walk the world as ghosts until someone frees them.

Ghost glimpses
Van says he believes wholeheartedly in ghosts. Once he and a friend were walking through the village in the middle of the night when they saw a cow run by. Assuming it had escaped from a neighbour’s farm, they began to chase the animal. But just as they were closing in, the cow vanished.

The road was surrounded by water on both sides, Van says, and it would have been impossible for the animal to escape without making a splash.

“I’m certain that cow was a ghost,” he says adamantly, as his neighbours snicker and guffaw at his tale.

But Van is also convinced there are human ghosts in Reaksmei Songha.

“I’ve found the bones of many people in my garden,” he says, as well as two human skulls in his fishing net one morning. “But we are so poor we cannot do any rituals for them.”

Like Pharng, Van asked the bones to give him prosperity so he could bring them to the nearest pagoda.

“I asked the bones: ‘If you still live here, please let me find jewels so I can give you a religious ceremony’,” Van explains. “But so far I haven’t found anything.”

Today, the bones are still buried deep in the earth on his property. Instead of bringing them to the pagoda, he visits them for Khmer New Year every year and dedicates small offerings to them.

Sok Sareurng, another villager who moved to the area 14 years ago, also claims to have seen ghosts in Reaksmei Songha.

“I’d heard rumours about ghosts but I didn’t really believe in them until I saw one,” Sareurng says. “He was big and dark with a beard … He didn’t do anything to me. He just appeared so I would see him.”

Sareurng says he fired his gun and the ghost vanished.According to the village chief’s wife, Try Ny, the ghosts of those executed by the Khmer Rouge don’t haunt the living because they are still too terrified of what happened to them during their lives. But those who died of starvation continue to suffer the same fate, she says.

“When we first arrived [in the village], the starving ghosts made us dream about them,” Ny says. “The next morning I offered them food and then they went away … They aren’t bad ghosts, they’re just starving.”

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Lim Van points to the spot on his farm where he found human bones in Battambang province. Eliah Lillis

Laid to rest
Deciding what to do with the human remains once they are discovered can be a point of contention in the village. While some families believe leaving the bones in the ground is bad luck, others adopt the opposite view. According to Arensen, many families in Ratanak Mondol opt to leave the bodies undisturbed. The community’s own displacement during war makes it almost certain they have no blood ties to those buried on their land, and thus have no right to move them.

“I’d ask people why they didn’t take people to the wat [pagoda], and they’d say it was because they didn’t know who they were,” she says. “It’s not that they didn’t care. It’s that you can’t help them.”

Bun Chheurn, the village’s 64-year-old chief, discovered a skeleton on his property and left it undisturbed. Over the years, Chheurn says he’s found the remnants of up to 10 individuals, but he would rather coexist with the bones than move them.

“We were digging in the land and we bumped into these bones, so we reburied them,” he explains, while sitting on a wooden bench with his wife about 70 metres from where the couple found the skeleton.

“We didn’t cremate [the skeleton] because we didn’t know who it belongs to. We didn’t know where to bring the bones,” he says.

Instead, he and his wife recited a prayer to their ancestors asking for the spirit of the bones to be reincarnated. He says he can feel the presence of the spirits in Reaksmei Songha, but he’s never been haunted by them. In fact, he believes that praying to them will decrease the likelihood of stepping on a landmine.

“I believe there are more spirits here than in other parts of the country; there is every type of ghost here from the war,” Chheurn says. “[But] some of the spirits help people if they are good.”

Ny, the village chief’s wife, adds that she does not want to move the bones in case a family member comes to claim them. According to some local beliefs, only those with a kinship tie to the deceased have the right to cremate them.

Occasionally, Chheurn says, people arrive in Reaksmei Songha to look for the bodies of their relatives. If they know where their kin died but cannot find the bones, the families are sometimes permitted to build shrines on the land.

“My father’s bones are near the police station,” Van says. “We were allowed to build a shrine for him there.”

Despite the fervent belief in ghosts, many in the village appear optimistic that the dead will eventually find peace. Prayers to ancestors, offerings, and visits to the pagoda can all help the villagers live more harmoniously with the dead, and eventually lead them all to reincarnation, they say.

“My feeling is that many of those people have already been reincarnated,” Chheurn says. “It’s like fruit; it falls and then it’s reborn.”

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