Lat Ngi struggled to explain to her daughter the significance of what she was holding.
“This is your grandfather,” she told the little girl, holding a 15-centimetre jaw bone segment out to the incredulous child.
“I know it is my father’s bone, because he had platinum covering his three teeth here,” the 40-year-old said, pointing to three decayed teeth pockets along the jaw. “I knew he was brought here, but I never imagined I would actually find him – I can’t find the words to say.”
Ngi, who now lives in Thailand’s Pattaya state, rushed to arrive at the site for yesterday’s ceremony for the spirits of the dead as soon as she heard the news about the recent unearthing of the Khmer Rouge-era execution pit.
A small crowd gathered around Ngi to confirm her remarkable discovery, some in awe, others in anguish.
For many, the uncovering of a mass grave in Kralanh district’s [Du Dantrei village] had inspired a measure of desperate hope to find the final remains of relatives who were executed or disappeared under the Khmer Rouge regime.
More than 300 villagers gathered at the now-halted soil excavation site to participate in the ceremony yesterday.
While monks led villagers in the blessing ritual, a small group of despairing Khmer Rouge survivors broke away to place a makeshift altar adorned with candles, a fresh pig’s head and fruit at the base of the pit where human remains, including children’s bones and 20 skulls, were dug up last weekend.
Sitting by the altar, first one, and then several more villagers began scratching at the ground with their bare hands. An older villager descended into the pit with a stick to break through the earth. In less than five minutes, the group had filled two large silver offering platters with bones, and Ngi had found her father.
However, not everyone was as fortunate as Ngi.
Vorn Mol, 57, recounted through a stream of tears that not only had she lost both her parents at this site, she had lost all four of her children, and had no way of being sure she could ever recover their exact remains.
“I don’t know what difficulty they went through before they died,” Mol, crouched in prayer, said. “I come here to dedicate to their spirits so that they will never see again what they got in this life.”
With a shaved head and cataracts creeping across her irises, Mol was vehement in stressing her wish that all remains in the area were exhumed and taken to a stupa for proper burial.
“I don’t want them buried in the mud like that,” she said. “I want to see all the skulls together in one stupa and to keep it as evidence.
“I want to request the Khmer Rouge court to find justice for these victims, and make all of the people responsible for their actions.”
According to Thuy Sam Oeut, 55, who was held at the nearby prison in a 30-person work group breaking stones, cadre conducted the executions early in the morning.
“Between 4am and 5am, I saw that they took young people and old people to this area,” Sam Oeut said. “The man who is in charge of this [….] I don’t know where he went after the regime failed.”
Many of the villagers claimed that from 1979 to early 1980, Vietnamese forces wiped out many of the former controlling Khmer Rouge cadre in the area.
Documentation Center of Cambodia director Youk Chhang told the Post on Monday that his researchers had known about the site since 1998 and had hoped it would be used for evidence at the court trying senior leaders and those most responsible for crimes during the Democratic Kampuchea period.
Deputy village chief Moek Samkhan said he had paid a group of villagers five cans of rice per day in 1980 to excavate as many bones as they could find from the nearby furnace pit.
Rice husk and, during 1977 to 1979, humans – alive and dead – were incinerated in the pit to make fertiliser.
A thick blanket of gritty, black debris covers what remains of the 15-by-25-metre furnace pit and its surrounding area.
“We did this in 1980, and it took about one month to collect all the bones we could,” Samhan said. Those bones are now kept in cubic-metre cement containers in the shell of the former prison office on Trung Bat mountain, about 500 metres from the site of the latest discovery.
The unkempt structure is covered in graffiti and some of the cement cases are cracked and broken away, exposing the fragments of rock and bone within.
“We knew what happened there [at the furnace and prison], but we did not know there was more here too,” he said, adding he would work to fulfil the villagers’ wish that a memorial stupa be built in the area.
A stupa is pertinent, because memories will likely die with survivors, 83-year-old Kan Kimly said, her eyes blinking back tears as she spoke.
“I try to tell my grandchildren the stories, but they don’t believe,” she said, struggling to smile. “How can you believe what happened?