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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Scorched earth and smoke mark Wat Kampeng's grim secret

Scorched earth and smoke mark Wat Kampeng's grim secret

W AT KAMPENG, Battambang - Since the beginning of February, this pagoda has been the

end of the line for dozens of government soldiers who died in dry season fighting

with the Khmer Rouge.

Blocks of burning wood in the pagoda grounds mark the cremation sites for the casualties

- about 60 soldiers in the past month, apparently - whose bodies never get sent back

to their families.

The cremations are something of a secret. Local monks and people have been told to

keep quiet about them, and journalists are not really welcome here.

"We're burning the body of a civilian," the soldier in charge told the

Post, but he was reluctant to answer questions.

"He is a civilian who was killed by the Khmer Rouge on Route 10," he said,

before turning his back and wandering away across the warm soil, as smoke drifted

up from three different places a few meters away.

The pagoda's crematorium has two places to burn corpses, explained Sothy, a student

living at the pagoda, but "sometimes they have to burn them outside."

The day before the Post visited, said Sothy, eight bodies were received from Phnom

Veng, the last reported position of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces troops pushing toward

the KR town of Pailin.

"They burnt all day and all night," he said. "It was not finished

when I woke up this morning."

The pagoda's grounds bear the scars of the intense activity of recent weeks: scorched

earth and small mounds of burnt wood.

In the past four weeks, about 60 soldiers have been cremated here, according to students

at the pagoda, but RCAF will not confirm that.

"It's not a secret, but headquarters doesn't want journalists reporting on the

activity at the pagoda," said one soldier.

The mortician and monks at the pagoda have clearly been asked to be discreet. "I

don't know anything," is the most common answer of the monks when questioned.

But when a military ambulance drove into the pagoda compound to deposit two new corpses,

the monks joined the children of the neighborhood to have a look at "how many

they bring this time."

According to locals, the military supplies the wood to burn its soldiers.

"They come every day to buy four to five square meters of wood. Sometimes they

need ten," says Roup Tha, an old woman who sells wood.

A soldier from the Battambang military hospital comes to order however much wood

they need for casualties who have died there, and Tha has it delivered to the pagoda.

One square meter is needed for each body, according to her.

"They come more often than last year," remarked the old woman, adding that

she has been particularly busy for one month.

"I feel sad, and sometimes I cry. If they buy lots of wood, it means that there

are lots of bodies."

Another place where the war dead are burnt in Battambang is the official military

crematorium, near the entrance to the town.

Here, undertaker Dang Roat said he has been woken up in the night about 20 times

since the beginning of January to deal with new bodies.

"They are only coming from the military hospital," said Roat, who has been

working here since 1979. "I cannot say whether this year is different from the

previous years. Every dry season there is the same large number of dead."

At the military crematorium, bodies are put into coffins, draped with Cambodian flags.

A Buddhist ceremony, attended by the deceased's family if possible, is performed

by monks before each cremation.

At Wat Kampeng, the routine is more basic. A ceremony is held before cremations if

family members are present. Otherwise, the bodies are just taken from the stretchers

they came in and put straight on to the fires, without coffins.

At the end of the day the Post visited, three men were cutting up a banana tree trunk

to prepare fireplaces for the two dead soldiers who had been brought in earlier.

The fires alight, the bodies are hoisted off stretchers and put on top the flames.

To one side, the bloodied stretchers sat idly.

Hours later, the ashes of each soldier will be collected. This is what their families,

if they can be located, will later be given.

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