It was four gray skulls resting on a bed of jumbled bones that again triggered Chea Nouen’s memories: breast-feeding her baby with her hands and feet shackled; her husband thrown into a pit to be turned into human fertilizer, her own marches to the killing fields — where she was saved three times by an executioner.
The past came hurtling back earlier this month when a new mass grave was discovered in this village in northwestern Cambodia, one of the bloodiest killing grounds in the country. Like most of Cambodia’s 300 known mass grave clusters, it is not being investigated or exhumed.
More than three decades after the Khmer Rouge ultra-revolutionaries orchestrated the deaths of nearly 2 million people, or one out of every four Cambodians, this country has not laid its ghosts to rest. Cambodia’s regime prefers to literally bury the past, especially since some of its current leaders, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, were once Khmer Rouge.
However, 63-year-old Chea Nouen and other survivors in this small, farming community cannot forget, hold their tears in check or banish the nightmares when they daily tread over the unexamined bones of 35,000 victims and live among restless souls that still hover, they believe, over homes and rice fields. Also unfinished is the pursuit of justice: Neither the three top Khmer Rouge leaders nor local executioners have been punished, with the exception of a controversial jail sentence of 19 years for the former prison chief known as Comrade Duch.
In April, Chea Nouen was invited to the capital, Phnom Penh, to hear a top Khmer Rouge official, Nuon Chea, offer his defense to a UN-backed tribunal: “I didn’t know. I was just carrying out orders. It’s an exaggeration.”
The UN and the tribunal say they are following the law. However, Chea Nouen says the trial is “an absurdity,” incredulous that it has taken six years, US$160 million and mountains of documents to prove a case against three now feeble octogenarians when all seems so starkly clear to the villagers at Do Dontrei.
“At my age and health, I cannot confront the Khmer Rouge,” says the 63-year-old woman. “However, I would be pleased to tell my story.”
Her body is almost skeletal and wracked by persistent illnesses from the Khmer Rouge years, but Chea Nouen’s animated face, striking poses and still supple hands conjure up the past in powerful pantomime.
She contorts her body, demonstrating how her legs and arms were bound to an iron bar. Her face grimaces in remembered pain. A soldier points a pistol to her temple, another searches her body for hidden valuables.
Their family, with two children, had been arrested one morning while riding in an ox-cart. A day after her release, her husband was taken away to the foot of a hill, close by the recently discovered grave, where the Khmer Rouge vented their hatred of former government soldiers like him with singular fury.
Blindfolded, hands tied behind their backs, they were savagely beaten, slashed with machetes and pushed into pits stocked with rice husks that were set ablaze. The ashes and decomposed bodies fused into fertilizer to be scattered over the rice fields.
Although still under official arrest, Chea Nouen was released to a Khmer Rouge complex that included dormitories, a warehouse and communal dining. She grew vegetables, worked grueling hours in the rice paddies and kitchen. One of her sons succumbed to illness, the other died of starvation.