Commercial soil excavators in Siem Reap province’s Kralanh district made a grisly discovery over the weekend when they stumbled upon human remains in a suspected Khmer Rouge-era mass grave.
Authorities yesterday said they had sealed the area and were working on protecting and conserving it as best they could until expert provincial officers from the Ministry of Cult and Religion could arrive to begin collecting the bones for proper burial rituals.
Twenty adult skulls and an array of human bones were initially discovered in the pit suspected to contain the remains of many more hundreds of Khmer Rouge victims, deputy provincial military police commander Nhim Sela told the Post yesterday.
The remains had been buried under six metres of topsoil and showed evidence of wilful killing, he added, describing skeletons with decomposing blindfolds, arms bound behind backs and others weighed down by large rocks in the five-by-six-metre hole.
“The killing of the bodies occurred in the Pol Pot genocidal regime. Now we put an embargo on all [excavating] activities pending the management of the relevant authorities to decide to make either a stupa or worship site for all the victims,” he said. “They are all victims, so we should keep them at a suitable place to calm [their spirits].”
The discovery was made in Du Dantry village, Kampong Thkov commune at the base of Trung Bat Mountain – the site of a prison and crematorium during the Khmer Rouge regime where prisoners were taken to be executed and/or cremated and their remains ground down to make fertiliser for the regime’s utopian, delusional rice production projects.
A Documentation Center of Cambodia article You Will Be Soil for the Rice Field surveys reports gathered by the 1979 Vietnam-backed government into the atrocities committed at Trung Bat Mountain and describes the practice of incinerating both dead and alive prisoners to create fertiliser for implementing the three-tonne-per-hectare rice production policy.
One survivor reported that she was also made to dig up human bones and grind them with urine to make manure for the fields, according to the article.
DC-Cam executive director Youk Chhang said teams of his researchers had first identified the recently-excavated site in 1998 as a place of mass atrocities.
“We estimated 35,000 and more deaths at the site through local documents and interviews with one hundred villagers,” he said by email yesterday.
“But we did not excavate the mass grave site in the hope that the [Khmer Rouge tribunal] may look into this as physical evidence,” Youk added.
So Phearin, Siem Reap provincial governor, said that provincial officials from the Ministry of Cult and Religion as well as the Cultural Department are searching for more bodies in tandem with local authorities, who are performing religious ceremonies as a sign of worship for the spirits of the victims.
“We will dredge for all bodies while consecutively making the traditional ceremony for them as well,” Phearin said.
Khamboly Dy, a Khmer Rouge regime researcher at DC-Cam, said he estimated the prison operation at the Trung Bat mountain to be bigger than the notorious S-21 interrogation and detention facility.
“The recent discovery of bones in the old area is a good source for our further research; it is bigger than S-21,” he said.
Eng Mara, 52, who was a former detainee at the Trung Bat security department, said that she and others were sent there in 1978 on the same allegation of being the revolution’s enemy and spies.
She described her torture and detention there, recounting that her neck was chained and she was kept standing up for three days straight.
“From day to day, I smelled of burnt human flesh, because hundreds of people were killed daily, but I was fortunate to survive because the security department was dissolved [before they took me],” she said, recalling other stories she had heard of botched executions in which beaten prisoners were thrown into the crematorium alive.
“I am extremely shocked at the number of bodies found in that location.
“I don’t want to recall the suffering which they caused me, because my neck was chained and even my legs were tied with clothes for eight days after I just delivered my children,” she said.
Youk said it was difficult for villagers to escape these haunting memories as years of rains and flood usually bought the bones of the dead to the surface from where they had been buried.
“The bones cannot find peace, until the truth they hold in themselves has been revealed,” Youk said. “After all, this is the memory that they live with for the rest of history.”