Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The strain of sifting through death and sorrow

The strain of sifting through death and sorrow

The strain of sifting through death and sorrow


Human rights organizations, particularly the United Nations', are cast in different

lights. To some they are modern day Wyatt Earps bringing justice where there is no

other hope. To others they are overpaid busybodies here to stir up trouble for the

government. But as Peter Sainsbury and Bou Saroeun found out, the rights workers

on the ground have a job that is far from glamorous and there is little time for

political intrigue.


UN rights worker Juan Pablo Ordonez adds wood to a funeral pyre for a Sam Rainsy Party activist.

KRATIE - The man wasn't important. In fact, neighbors say he was a drunkard and a

bit of a loud mouth.

He had two wives in his village and numerous children. By trade he was a carpenter.

If it wasn't for a rumor that came to light at a meeting of human rights groups some

weeks ago he would still be lying in a water-logged grave at Kratie airport, unmourned,

unknown and condemned to be a ghost because no Buddhist ceremony had been performed

for his funeral.

But his death set in motion an investigation involving three human rights groups,

dozens of people and substantial resources - both financial and emotional.

The man in the grave was an itinerant worker, traveling widely to find work while

at the same time being a low-level organizer for the Sam Rainsy Party.

About six weeks ago he fell ill in the town of Snoul near Kratie.

He was taken to the provincial hospital where he died. According to the medical report

the cause of death was because "he stopped breathing and his heart stopped."

He had no identification but among his personal effects were 21 membership cards

for the Khmer Nation Party (now the SRP).

The hospital buried him out by Kratie airport, a place that serves as a rubbish dump

and as a cemetery for the unidentified.

Some weeks later the human rights group Licadho got word of the death of a man carrying

SRP membership cards. They in turn informed the Cambodian Office for the High Commissioner

for Human Rights (COHCHR).

At that point the COHCHR's human rights worker for the area, Juan Pablo Ordonez,

launched an investigation, liaising with Licadho and another local rights group,


From the start it was clear there were going to be problems. Ordonez said the first

involved identifying who the dead man actually was because the hospital just selected

just one of the membership cards he had been carrying and deemed that to be his name.

It wasn't.

There was, however, an important clue among his personal effects - a photograph of

him with another person.

Ordonez gave the photo to a Khmer investigator who went to Snoul and asked around

if anyone knew either of the pair.

There he had some luck. The photograph was recognized and though no-one remembered

his real name some people knew the man as the "master carpenter". They

also knew his home district.

From there it was a case of traveling around the district to all the village chiefs

until the photo was finally recognized.

The family was contacted and told that maybe their missing husband and father might

have been found. Ordonez had a body and a name. He now needed some solid physical


The case so far had a known party activist dying prematurely and an inadequate medical

report from the hospital.

Ordonez thought the man's role as a party activist, and a mobile one at that, made

him "a good target" because if he was killed he would not be missed for

some time.

Physical evidence and identification could only come from the body. Arrangements

were made for an exhumation and for a doctor and nurse to examine the body. At the

same time the family would be brought to Kratie to identify the body and to cremate

it in accordance with Buddhist practice.

A day in the sun.

There is something profane about exhumations - disturbing the dead. But the saying

"dead men tell no tales" was coined before the days of forensic medicine.

No one was looking forward to the event except maybe the four grave diggers who had

managed to secure $60 for their work which also included the cremation.

The three men, all about 60, seemed quite cheerful to be out in the sun initially

just watching 23-year-old Touch Ry, a daughter of one of them, begin chipping away

at the baked earth.

Soon every one was busy, helping dig, chopping wood and preparing a pit for the cremation.

Ry said she did not mind the work. "I am not afraid of ghosts and I always help

my father and his partner when they go to dig up a body.

"I want to help them so when I die I will have some one to help me as I helped

them," she said.

The body that was eventually removed from the grave had been there one month. Dead

flesh has no resistance against heat and moisture and the things that thrive in it,

and there was plenty of water at the bottom of the grave. It was black and fragile,

the flesh no longer attached to bone and the limbs came loose. The smell was palpable.

The body was placed on the ground next to the grave to enable Ordonez and a nurse

from Licadho to examine it. The Khmer doctor also attending was too overcome with

the smell and feared he would vomit if he went too close to the corpse.

Later he said it wasn't just the smell he couldn't get used to. "I have seen

lots of dead bodies, particularly during the Pol Pot regime."

The body was so decomposed that there was little that could be checked other than

for fractures, of which there were none.

Once the examination was finished the body should have been cremated but there was

a problem. The family had not arrived to identify the remains and darkness was approaching.

It turned out that the boat in which the family were traveling had broken down. Ordonez

quickly checked with a Buddhist layman who was present to oversee the cremation to

see what was the appropriate thing to do.

The consensus was to proceed with the cremation and present the bones to the family.

The cremation had an air of intimacy about it. There was no coffin or shroud, everyone

leant a hand to bring over fuel and the body was placed on the wooden pyre. More

wood was stacked around it, gasoline poured over the top and it was ignited.

Two of the grave diggers tended the fire with long poles, prodding and fussing to

ensure that everything burned. There seemed to be a lot of joking and each of the

grave diggers yelled at the other when they threw more wood on or took some off.

Each man seemed to consider himself the expert on how to run a proper cremation.

Everyone stood around like they were watching a bonfire. At that moment the family

arrived - too late to identify the body, but they recognized his clothes.

As the fire cooled the bones were raked out and washed, then crushed, and placed

in an urn. It was blessed by the layman and presented to the family.

Everyone headed back to town, some in cars while others began walking, just wanting

to be alone.


No one present is unaffected by the day's proceedings. Ordonez - who held everything

together - is exhausted. "You have to keep in control but you just want to be

alone and want to cry and scream," he says.

"I am depressed for 24 hours," he says a week later. "I could not

eat for 48 hours. I have nightmares for a couple of days.

"Part of this is [because of] the body but also the family. When the wife arrived

she hugged me but I felt hopeless."

The nurse who made the examination says it was only later that she reacted to the

body. "When I am doing it I have the ability to cut off," she says. "At

the time I am so curious."

But she says now there are sights and smells that bring the day back to her and she

thinks about her job. "I cannot understand how I can do it."

For the family the day was something of a closing.

The wife cries and says she is sorry to have not seen her husband before he died.

But she says she is grateful that the investigation meant that her husband had received

a proper cremation.

The grave diggers seem to be the only people who regard it as just another days work.

Pich Touch, 59, says he has dug up at least 40 bodies in his life. "Sometimes

I have met with a body worse than this. Sometime they are buried in the water [logged

graves] so I have to come down and just take the bones and then take all the flesh

out," he says.

Buddhist layman, Ken Hom, 49, says that there is no theological problem with holding

the cremation in a field instead of a pagoda. "In the pagoda, sometimes we receive

two bodies at the same time so one we burn in the crematorium and another one we

have to cremate outside.

"The only thing that is important is taking the bones to give to the family

to have a ceremony in the pagoda or at their home."

For Ordonez the case is now closed.

From the examination, medical records and talking to witnesses who saw the man when

he fell ill it appears he died of some disease, probably cerebral malaria. There

is no indication of foul play.

Ordonez is pleased that they have found out the truth and he does not regard the

job as wasted effort - especially for the family.

"My work is not to create crises and problems where they don't exist. If there

is no crime I am glad. It stops people rewriting history. If we hadn't done the investigation

maybe in a few years time people would say this disappearance was a political killing."

After returning from Kratie Ordonez has just enough time to write his report before

another job comes in for his attention. But he was philosophical about the work load.

"We just have to get our shit together and keep doing it."


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