Cambodia mass grave find reopens wounds of Khmer Rouge survivor

Chea Nouen remembers husband’s killing,kids’ death,own marches to killing fields — where she was saved thrice

Written by Associated Press | Published: August 26, 2012 1:24 am

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 fertiliser,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.

More than three decades after the Khmer Rouge orchestrated deaths of nearly 2 million people,or one out of every four Cambodians,this country has not laid its ghosts to rest.

Chea Nouen,63,and other survivors cannot banish the nightmares when they daily tread over unexamined bones of 35,000 victims and live among restless souls that still hover,they believe,over homes and fields.

Nouen contorts her body,demonstrating how her legs and arms were bound to an iron bar. A soldier held a pistol to her temple,another searched her. In shock,she dropped her 2-month-old son to the prison floor. For seven days,sleepless and surviving on just water,she cradled her child,twisting her body to allow him to suckle.

Their family,with two kids,had been arrested one morning while riding in an ox-cart. Her husband was taken to a hill,close by the recently discovered grave,where the Khmer Rouge vented their hatred of former soldiers like him with singular fury. They were beaten,slashed with machetes and pushed into pits stocked with rice husks that were set ablaze. The ashes and decomposed bodies fused into fertiliser to be scattered over rice fields.

Nouen was sent to a Khmer Rouge complex,where she worked grueling hours in rice paddies and kitchen. One of her sons succumbed to illness,the other died of starvation. Of the hundreds of workers who passed through the complex,all of them women,only seven survived. Executions took place once or twice a week and often timed to fertiliser production.

Then the day came. Nouen was on the way to the killing pits when the execution squad chief,Nhorn,a man she had provided with bath water,halted the file of prisoners. “I don’t know why he was so kind and saved my life. He did it three times. Maybe he felt sympathy for me. Maybe he loved me,’’ she says. She never saw him again.

“Whenever I think of Khmer Rouge time I don’t feel hunger or thirst,’’ she says. “I feel nothing except the feeling that I am already dead.’’

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