Discovery of Sre Lieu Mass Grave

Rasy Pheng Pong



            May 5, 2007 marked the discovery of a group of graves in O Kambot Trapeang Sragne jungle in Sre Lieu village, Trapeang Pleang sub-district, Chhuok district, Kampot province. The discovery of the graves, which contain the bodies of approximately 9,000 people who died during Democratic Kampuchea, began when a group of Vietnamese delegates, Cambodian provincial and district authorities, and local people excavated one of the graves. They were looking for the skulls and bones of Vietnamese soldiers who lost their lives during the war years in Cambodia. A day later, the number of people gathering at the nearby pagoda increased. They came to help exhume the graves. Authorities from Trapeang Pleang sub-district were also present; they had come to measure and collect statistics on the mass graves.


            According to Khoem Yukhoeun, 57, first assistant to the chief of Trapeang Pleang sub-district, 10 villagers who joined the excavation team were reported to have found gold necklaces and earrings at the site. Together, they weighed about 1.5 1.5 tam loeung (a tam loeng is equivalent to 37.5 grams).


            Upon hearing this, hundreds of Sre-Lieu villagers stopped their daily work and began to unearth the graves, looking for gold. Even though most of them were not lucky enough to find anything, they continued digging and searching. On May 9, a torrential rain began to fall, and most of the villagers returned home. They could do nothing besides wait and hope for the rain to stop so they could carry on digging. A villager in his thirties carrying hoe and walking to the graveyard said, “I try to dig and look around, hoping that good luck will fall on me and bring me gold.”


            As a result of villagers removing earth, the graves quickly filled with rainwater. Remnants of cloth floated up to the surface of the water. Some of the bones that the villagers had already unearthed and did not bury were piled close to the tlong tree that grows in the middle of the grave area.


            Fifty year-old Srey Neth said that she also joined the other villagers, but became so exhausted that she had to stop digging. During the Khmer Rouge regime, Srey Neth’s job was to bury the members of her unit who died of malaria and cholera. She stated that all of those who died were under the age of 30 and members of the mobile units that were assigned to build a dam at Kos Sla. The bodies of those who died at the Zone 35 hospital were carried to the hill in which people were now digging for gold (this hospital was located about 200 meters from Kos Sla dam; nowadays, there is no trace of it).


            Ngay Yong, 47, is a former member of a mobile unit that built Kos Sla dam. He said, “I think that very few people died of illness. Rather, most of them died as a result of the lethal injections they were given at the Zone 35 hospital.” In the hospital, people with curable illnesses were often injected with too much liquid. The 53 year-old chief of Trapeang Pleang sub-district, Suos Phorn, concurred on the matter of lethal injections. Most of the hospital’s patients ended up in graves, he stated.


            During the Khmer Rouge regime, Srey Neth and the other grave diggers were not afraid of ghosts, so every night they were told to carry dead bodies from the hospital to the graves. She said, “I carried only the dead bodies of people in my unit. Like the others, I was forbidden by Angkar from telling others about the number of deaths.” Srey Neth cannot recall the number of bodies she had buried during the Khmer Rouge regime. She said, “Sometimes, they [the Khmer Rouge] woke me up in the middle of the night and ordered me to take bodies to be buried. Sometimes, I started my job at 2 a.m. The number of bodies I buried ranged from two to six per night.”


            The discovery of mass graves caused many of the former mobile unit members who built Kos Sla dam to think back thirty years and recollect the time when they volunteered to work for the Khmer Rouge. While Srey Neth was collecting the victims’ bones, she remembered carrying the dead bodies of her colleagues to the graves. She said, “I cannot recognize which bones belong to my colleagues, whose bodies I buried. I would like to ask for forgiveness from the victims if I was neglectful in burying their bodies.”


            The local authorities put a ban on unearthing the graves and told people to gather the bones in a safe place so they could send them to Wat Stoeng memorial located at the Chhuok district office. Sub-district chief Suon Phorn stated that he was against the idea of digging for gold because unearthing the graves would disturb the victims’ spirits. Khoem Yukhoeun, an assistant to the Trapeang Pleang sub-district chief, also expressed his regret. He said, “The villagers should not have unearthed the graves thoughtlessly. It is not good if the villagers selfishly continue digging the graves for gold.”


            Because of poverty, however, most villagers ignored the ban. A lot of graves were emptied as a result of the continuous digging. Fifty year-old Svay Saroeun, a second assistant to the Trapeang Pleang sub-district chief, had tried to stop people from digging, but they would not obey him. He had first noticed the Khmer Rouge’s grave area in September 1979 while he was walking to the Kos Sla dam to fish. According to Svay Saroeun, the graves were laid out in 70 rows and each row had 130 graves. Some graves had some sort of names on them. After several years the graveyard became covered with big trees, bushes, and shrubs, and it became unrecognizable. Srey Boy, who owns a plot of farmland nearby, said he knew that his land was a graveyard from the Khmer Rouge regime, and the land has not been cleared for farming yet.


            In 1998, people from such provinces as Takeo, Pailin and Along Veng settled in Kos Sla, not knowing it was a Khmer Rouge killing field. Only a few base people and former members of mobile units working at Kos Sla knew about this place. Soa Son, 65, from Takeo province had lived near the graveyard for more than ten years before he realized that many bodies from the Pol Pot regime lay underneath the ground. During his stay, he was suspicious because ghosts usually haunted about a hectare of the area around the grave. He said, “Sometimes I heard chattering voices in the forest. Sometimes I heard the sound of a screeching ox-cart along the path in front of my house toward the forest; then the sound died down. I followed the sound of that ox-cart, but did not dare walk into the forest because I knew it was haunted by ghosts.” Even after he learned that the place was a former grave, he still tried to dig for gold. He has not moved his house yet.


            After the heavy rain fell, a villager who was busy digging told other villagers a ghost story, which had occurred a few days after people began looking for gold. At midnight, villagers nearby heard the sounds of crying and mourning from the forest. On hearing this story, some villagers no longer dug for gold. The sub-district chief, his assistants, and members of sub-district council thought that the crying and mourning of spirits showed that the victims were hurt again. Srey Neth related another event that happened around the same time. She said the villagers who found the gold felt uneasy. Moreover, something unusual had happened in their families. For instance, their family members suddenly felt ill.


            On May 13, people who had found gold decided to share the money by holding a religious ceremony at the gravesite. During the ceremony, they prayed that the victims’ spirits will soon find nirvana or reincarnation. They also prayed that the strange events that had been occurring in the village would stop. The chief of Trapeang Pleang sub-district said he was glad that there had been a proper ceremony dedicated to the spirits, but there has not been justice for the victims yet. He said, “If justice has not been sought, the piled-up bones should not be cremated. Proper cremation is not enough for the victims, for their spirits will not be in a peaceful state unless justice is found.” The chief and his people thought they might build a stupa and place the bones inside. They felt this stupa could represent torture during the Khmer Rouge regime. However, the Chhuok district base authority had already planned that the bones should be taken to a memorial at Wat Stoeng.


            Suos Phorn, Ngay Yong, Srey Neth and others gave some background on how people were mobilized to build Kos Sla dam. People from Taken and L’beuk sub-districts in Chhuok district were the first laborers to build the dam, starting from O Kambot Trapeang Sragne. Because the dam was to be large in both width and length, in 1973 Angkar gathered people from other districts for additional labor. Yet the dam still could not be completed on time. After the Khmer Rouge’s day of triumph on April 17, 1975, they gathered labor again. Most of their recruits were base people and the rest were April 17 (new) people. Angkar had planned that the dam should be finished by late 1976.


            Sous Phorn described the hardship that fell on mobile unit members, including malnutrition, malaria, cholera, injuries during construction, and poisonous snakes. Most of the mobile units’ members became sick and died one after another. Because of the large number of patients, the Zone 35 chief established the Zone 35 hospital to care for mobile unit patients. Many sick people were carried into the hospital, but most of them never recovered and returned to work at the Kos Sla dam site.


            In late 1976, the dam was still incomplete, so Angkar continued forcing people to work on it until 1977. The district chief said that thousands of mobile unit members died of malaria and cholera between 1973 and 1975. In 1977, the Zone 35 hospital was demolished. Men who survived the epidemic were gathered and made to work as border guards. The surviving women worked in the salt fields. Later on, some of these women were sent to work in Phnom Penh.


            The Kos Sla dam is enormous, and it is difficult to believe that it was built by people who did not have adequate food or medical supplies. Sous Phorn said plainly that Kos Sla dam and the approximately 200 graves that were recently unearthed nearby are a historical lesson for the young generation to learn about how the Khmer Rouge brutally killed Khmer people.


            Since the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia was established in early 2006, this is the third discovery of former mass graves left from the Khmer Rouge regime. The first two were found in Kampong Speu and Kampot provinces. In early 2006 a killing field at Phnom Sruoch called “Prey Chheu Neang” was discovered after children who are cowherds and firewood collectors found a pair of golden rings in the area of the mass grave while they were playing. The Prey O Deibak killing field, located adjacent to Phnom Vor in Keb town, was discovered in March 2007.