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.