Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 'Now I know it's true'



'Now I know it's true'

'Now I know it's true'

A S the convoy trundled along the road to a pair of shallow graves in Kampong Speu,

Heng Sopheary wore casual clothes, a krama around her neck and fresh make-up on her

face. She appeared relaxed; it was not the first time that she had been taken to

a grave to see if it was her husband's.

Krouch Yoeum, the 61-year-old Undersecretary of State for Defense, had been missing

since the July fighting in Phnom Penh, but Sopheary still held out hope that her

husband was somehow still alive.

"Until I can see his dead body with my own eyes, I won't believe that my husband

has died," said Sopheary, aged 31, an hour before she arrived at the grave.

"I had been told many times that my husband's grave was here and there, but

it was not his body when I went and checked," she told fellow passengers on

the way to Lor village, Oudong district about 40kms west of Phnom Penh, Oct 15.

Accompanied by United Nations Center for Human Rights staff whose investigations

had uncovered the double gravesite, Sopheary looked composed as she told stories

about her husband and other Funcinpec officials.

"My husband had been sick. He had just come back from a hospital in Bangkok

two days before the fighting. He was persuaded by [General Nhek] Bun Chhay to go

to Tang Krasang camp and he got stuck there," she recalled.

Occasionally Sopheary looked sad, but other times she smiled and even laughed. Remembering

how she was told her husband joined Nhek Bun Chhay's desperate break-out from Tang

Krasang, heading through the jungle for northwestern Cambodia, she exclaimed: "My

husband is too fat! I was afraid he could not run such a long way like that."

She remembered how she met her husband in Bangkok in early 1991 when she was in Thailand

taking a beauticians' course. Krouch Yoeum was a one-star general at the time with

royalist resistance forces on the Cambodian-Thai border.

She had been staying with a cousin's sister in Bangkok. Yoeum, who used to work with

her now-deceased uncle as a teacher in Battambang during the Sihanouk regime, used

to visit her.

"He would often have meals at my house," she recounted simply. "Then

we married."

As the convoy of human rights workers neared the graves, Sopheary spoke fondly of

one of her husband's friends and colleagues, Ho Sok, who was executed July 7 after

being captured by CPP forces.

"At least twice a month he used to come to my house," she recalled of Ho

Sok. "Sometimes I made noodle soup for him instead of a full meal. He ate it;

he didn't mind."

Her children always asked Ho Sok to sing Karaoke and he obliged them. "He was

gentle ... He was funny and simple," she said, "He could sing Karaoke very

beautifully."

Sopheary knew that Ho Sok was now dead, but she still hoped her husband had escaped

the same fate. She explained her husband had last been seen alive by his bodyguards

on a big hill near Damnak Smach village on the evening of July 7. Nhek Bun Chhay

was on one side of the hill, and Krouch Yoeum and fellow Funcinpec officer Chao Sambath

were on the other.

Yoeum and Sambath, with about 20 soldiers, were captured while Bun Chhay managed

to slip through the dragnet, the bodyguards told her.

Several CPP soldiers approached Yoeum and his men readied a B40 rocket to greet them,

but he ordered them to hold their fire, she said.

"They approached my husband and asked 'Are you Nhek Bun Chhay?'" she recounted.

"They thought that my husband was Bun Chhay!"

The two generals and their men were detained in a school near Damnak Smach village,

and the generals later separated from their soldiers. That was the last time either

were seen alive by their bodyguards.

Two weeks ago, human rights workers discovered two graves in the forest near Lor

village. They suspected they could be those of Yoeum and Sambath, and asked Sopheary

to come and try to identify her husband's body.

As the convey reached its destination, Sopheary joined rights workers and journalists

at the gravesite, tying her krama around her sun hat. She had not arranged for a

coffin or bought a plastic sheet to wrap up the corpse. She didn't expect the body

to be her husband's, or even that she would be able to identify it if it had been

in the ground a long time.

She did, however, remember what her husband was wearing the last time she saw him.

"He was wearing athletic shoes and an American army uniform with four big pockets,"

she said.

As rights workers drained water from the first grave and began exhuming the body,

a monk passed by. They asked him to come and pray, and Sopheary lit some incense.

The first things they found were the shoes. She was shocked. "Look! There are

his shoes," she cried. "That's him. That's him," she repeated over

and over through her tears.

Then they found Yoeum's army identification card. By now Sopheary was sobbing uncontrollably.

"People said that you had been executed, but I did not believe them. But now

I know it is true," she wailed as she wiped dust from the card.

Yoeum's body was pulled out of the grave, his hands cut off and legs crossed and

bound. One bullet and two spent cartridges were found in the grave.

"My husband was not killed in the battle at all. They killed him later,"

Sopheary charged.

Local people knew about the execution, but kept silent because they thought they

would have problems if they said anything, according to a boy herding cows nearby.

"One evening I saw a 'Commanka' [Russian jeep] covered with a tarpaulin come

here," the boy said, adding that it had come from a school near the village

where 20 royalist soldiers had been held. "A few minutes later I heard about

seven gunshots."

Before Sopheary was allowed to take her husband's body, six local policemen armed

with B40 rockets and AK47s prevented her from doing so for half an hour. She asked

for their compassion; they asked for her money. Eventually, after being given 110,000

riels, they allowed the group to leave.

The other body, suspected of being Chao Sambath's, was left in the grave until his

relatives could be taken there to identify it. (Sambath's family later cancelled

a trip there because they were afraid, according to rights workers.)

Sopheary, meanwhile, was left pondering her husband's murder, one of more than 40

excecutions which UN rights workers have alleged occured after the July fighting.

"In our country they kill people easily... illegally," she said, choking

back tears. "I would not mind if my husband had been sent to trial. They should

have given him a chance to talk before they killed [him], if they found him guilty."

She speculated that a higher-ranking officer had ordered the execution. "Normally

the low-ranking respect the high-ranking. My husband was a three-star general. I

don't think a simple soldier could order the execution on his own."

Referring to statements made by Hun Sen, she said: "They said no one had been

executed but Ho Sok. But you see? They cut my husband's hands off before they killed

him."

Sopheary did not mention it, but others remembered that Yoeum had, in a way, foreshadowed

Ho Sok's death back in April this year. Then, Yoeum said publicly that he was called

to a meeting by Hun Sen the night before the exiled Prince Norodom Sirivudh's unsuccessful

bid to return to Cambodia. At the meeting, Hun Sen threatened to kill Nhek Bun Chhay

and Ho Sok if they tried to protect Sirivudh from being arrested, Yoeum said.

Sopheary arranged for Yoeum's body to be cremated at Phnom Penh's Wat Lanka the day

after it was unearthed. As with an earlier ceremony she had held to mark her husband's

disappearance, she didn't invite high-ranking Funcinpec officials; she didn't think

they would want to be associated with her husband.

But First Prime Minister Ung Huot, co-Minister of Interior You Hockry and other party

officials arrived at the cremation to pay their respects.

Ministry of Interior official Kieng Vang told reporters that he was convinced Yoeum

was not killed during fighting, but afterward. Ung Huot, meanwhile, declined to comment

to reporters.

Leaving the funeral, Huot and his wife exchanged polite farewells with Sopheary.

As Huot walked to his car, Sopheary said to the Prime Minister's wife: "Thank

you, sister, for coming. And please, happiness be with you. Don't have bad luck like

me."

MOST VIEWED

  • Phnom Penh placed in two-week lockdown

    The government has decided to place Phnom Penh in lockdown for two weeks, effective April 14 midnight through April 28, as Cambodia continues to grapple with the ongoing community outbreak of Covid-19, which has seen no sign of subsiding. According to a directive signed by Prime Minister

  • Cambodia on the verge of national tragedy, WHO warns

    The World Health Organisation (WHO) in Cambodia warned that the country had reached another critical point amid a sudden, huge surge in community transmission cases and deaths. “We stand on the brink of a national tragedy because of Covid-19. Despite our best efforts, we are

  • Hun Sen: Stay where you are, or else

    Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that the two-week lockdown of Phnom Penh and adjacent Kandal provincial town Takmao could be extended if people are not cooperative by staying home. “Now let me make this clear: stay in your home, village, and district and remain where

  • Vaccination open to foreigners in Cambodia

    The Ministry of Health on April 8 issued an announcement on Covid-19 vaccination for foreigners residing and working in Cambodia, directing the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training and local authorities to register them. Health minister Mam Bun Heng, who is also head of the inter-ministerial

  • Culture ministry: Take Tuol Sleng photos down, or else

    The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has told Irish photographer Matt Loughrey to take down the photos of Khmer Rouge victims at Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum which he allegedly colourised and altered to show them smiling. The ministry said Loughrey's work is unacceptable, affecting

  • Cambodia gears up for muted New Year festival

    The recent curfew and restrictions imposed in the capital and other Covid-19 hotspots were intended to break the chain of transmission, Ministry of Health spokeswoman Or Vandine said as municipal and provincial authorities issued new directives banning certain activities during the upcoming Khmer New Year