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Bodies greeted by ceremony

Military police carry the coffin of a Cambodian UN peacekeeper through a guard of honour after it arrived at Phnom Penh International Airport
Military police carry the coffin of a Cambodian UN peacekeeper through a guard of honour after it arrived at Phnom Penh International Airport with another deceased peacekeeper last night. Vireak Mai

Bodies greeted by ceremony

Shrouded in flags, the bodies of two Cambodians deployed on a UN peacekeeping mission in the West African nation of Mali returned to the Kingdom last night to a crowd of nearly 100 civilians and men and women in the armed services.

An hour before the plane landed at Phnom Penh International Airport at 7:25pm, men and women dressed in fatigues waited alongside family members of Ny Nol, 32, and Meak Sereyvatana, 26, who died from suspected food poisoning on June 10.

“Both men are good friends to our armed forces . . . they were always friendly and took care of their friends and co-workers. We are very proud that they jointly served us [Cambodia] and Mali’s people under the United Nations,” said Sem Sovanny, director-general of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ National Centre for Peacekeeping Forces, Mine and Explosive Remnants of War Clearance.

The deaths mark the first loss of Cambodian soldiers in eight years of UN peacekeeping missions, Sovanny added.

A portrait of a UN peacekeeper who died in Mali sits in front of his coffin at Phnom Penh International Airport last night
A portrait of a UN peacekeeper who died in Mali sits in front of his coffin at Phnom Penh International Airport last night. Vireak Mai

While the official cause of death has yet to be confirmed, Sovanny maintained last night that both men died of food poisoning and that authorities were “waiting for the results of the UN investigation”.

Saffron robes dotted the crowd of solemn men and women as the two wooden caskets were escorted down a red carpet. Nol’s body was transported to Kampong Thom’s Baray district and the body of Sereyvatana will be taken to Phnom Penh’s Wat Than pagoda, family members said last night.

“We requested through the government that UN officials not perform an autopsy on my son’s body. We demanded the body remain whole, because if some piece becomes lost he will not be reborn again,” said Sereyvatana’s father Meak Timchenda, 42.

“This is Cambodian culture,” affirmed his wife, Chan Pichery, 46, who last saw her son three months ago.

Ny Taing In, 28, the younger brother of Nol, reiterated his family’s request that Nol’s body be returned “untouched”.

“My family did not ask for an autopsy, but we did ask the government to intervene and keep the body of my brother whole,” Taing In said.

Last week, a UN spokesman for the UN mission, known as MINUSMA, confirmed that Cambodian authorities had requested autopsies not be performed.

As the bodies of the two men were shouldered by their fellow countrymen, and the sound of drumming grew louder, a cousin of Nol quietly clasped her hands in the rain as the skies opened.

“We are very proud,” Un Chhun Ieng, 27, said.

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