Chey Sopheara Tells the History of the Mass Graves Behind Tuol Sleng







Pongrasy Pheng


Mr. Chey Sopheara, aged 51, is currently Director of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Sopheara said that the mass grave uncovered very recently in the front yard of the resident, a stone throw from behind the Museum fence of the Museum, is in fact related to what had happened at the Museum after the liberation.

Sopheara was one of the guides at Tuol Sleng between 1979-80, when the State (the People’s Revolutionary of Kampuchea) established a people’s court to try the Khmer Rouge regime, in which many delegates from the socialist nations.  During that period of the 1979’s Khmer Rouge trial, his team was told to exhume the above grave to show the delegations that the Khmer Rouge killed actually people everywhere in the compound of S-21 Office during their rule between 1975-79.

Sopheara knew there were graves behind Tuol Sleng because he had been told by a soldier not long after the liberation day.  However, he forgot the name of the soldier. “In 1979-80, wherever his team dug the earth, we saw human bones”, he recalled. His team chose to dig the grave, which was now in the front yard of Mr. Ay Siphal, who is a shoe maker. At that time, there was no peoples’ residence behind the Museum like now.  There was actually debris of a ruined house next to the grave and there were many banana trees behind the infamous S-21. The grave was located at a cluster of the banana trees. When his team dug it, he saw strings, bones, and skulls…. The Ministry of Health and the competent authorities came and joined Sopheara’ s team in the exhumation process. The exhumation was stopped after a while due to the very bad smell from the bodies in the grave. He said that the bones were boiled in a big pot and hairs remained to be seen on some of the skulls. Some of the skulls after being boiled and cleaned were put together to shape like a map and some were kept there for an exhibition. He said his team kept suspecting that the big skulls and long sight bones were the remains of some foreigners.

Sopheara said he himself was told to bring some of the bones from Svay Rieng province and some from Tuol Kok gravesite (Radio Station situated north of the city). He estimated at 10 bodies in that grave. After that, his team took a large piece of glass to cover the grave and a fence was made around the grave for other foreign delegates or journalists to come and see. His team believed that the glass could also protect the remains from being eaten by animals and from being covered up with earth.

In 1993, the political trend changed, the grave was covered up with earth (over the glass) and the fence was destroyed. Just recently, as Ay Siphal was preparing to build an extension to his house, he dug up the grave and intended to take the bones to a pagoda. Sopheara asserted that some of the houses built behind Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum must have been standing on the graves. House owners knew about this but they kept building and living there. The glass that we saw broken into pieces now was the old glass his team put to cover the bones in the late 1979, it was not the frame of the grave.  

Sopheara referred to the recent finding of the grave behind Tuol Sleng as being merely an old story. “Mr. Ay Siphal actually knew of the grave beneath where he lives and he did not do anything to the bones until he was prepared to build an extension to his house. He had to first dig the grave and took the bones to the pagoda for a religious ceremony according to the Khmer tradition. So, do not be so surprised.”, said Chey Sopheara, “It is an old story.”








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