Digging for gold in Cambodia's killing fields.

Notes from different corners of the world.
June 13 2007 3:02 PM

Digging for Gold in the Killing Fields

What a macabre treasure hunt reveals about Cambodia's uneasy relationship with its past.

Chey Mao with a fragment of skull
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Chey Mao with a fragment of bone

SRE LIEV, Cambodia—Squatting before the mound of bones, 68-year-old Chey Mao held her blue flip-flops in one hand and a fragment of skull in the other. "I'm looking for silver or gold—I need it to buy medicine," she explained as she poked through the remains of her compatriots with a wrinkled finger.

Beneath the woman's bare feet lay some 1,000 victims of the Khmer Rouge—save a few hundred souls whose bones were recently unearthed when villagers ransacked the killing field for gold.

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A local farmer first spied a shiny earring inside the mass grave last month, when Vietnamese soldiers searching for the remains of their own POWs began digging at the site. The news traveled fast, and soon more than 400 gold-seeking villagers were hacking away at the ground in Sre Liev, a remote settlement about 80 miles southwest of the capital. By the week's end, they had unearthed a total of 27 gold earrings and a single gold necklace in the macabre treasure hunt.

The meager findings represented a wealth of riches for the rural villagers. The tiny, impoverished settlement had sprung up five years earlier in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold, where factional fighting had ended only in the mid-1990s. Ex-cadres in faded military garb still surveyed the roads, glaring at our motorbike as we struggled to cross the waterlogged rice paddies one recent Saturday.

One of the 27 gold earrings unearthed at Sre Liev
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One of the 27 gold earrings unearthed at Sre Liev

By the time we arrived at the site—one week after the first villager had struck gold—there was precious little left to dig. The remains of splintered trees, cut down during the digging frenzy, stood between the pits that covered the upended field. After the week's constant rainfall, it was difficult to walk between the exhumed graves without slipping right into them. Shirtless children in muddy shorts clung to the edges of the small crowd that had gathered at the site, silent and staring as we walked toward the remains piled in the center.

Chey Mao, who had been sifting through the bones, picked up a short stick and started poking at the ground. "I'm too sick and weak to dig," she said after a few minutes of fruitless excavation, then she asked us if we had any spare change.

The landowner's father, a former Khmer Rouge officer, had warned Veth Semi not to farm the gravesite when he gave her the plot of land a decade ago, to avoid disturbing the souls below. Some were victims of a forced-labor camp at a nearby irrigation project, but most had been trucked in from other provinces to be executed en masse, said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has mapped some 20,000 killing fields in the country and sent a team of researchers to Sre Liev last month.

Heeding her father's warning, 30-year-old Semi tried to stave off the first round of gold-seekers who came to raid her land. But many of the diggers carried axes, and Semi and her husband had only one hoe, the farmer said as she squatted next to us, her large pregnant belly nearly touching the ground.

A boy digs through the bones and rags 
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A boy digs through the bones and rags

Now, Semi said, the regime's victims haunt the desecrated fields. "I used to be brave, but now I'm afraid to go looking for my buffaloes at night," she said. "The ghosts have come here. They've lost their way and can't get out."

Its treasure exposed, the land has turned into a field of stricken souls. It's a state of unease that has troubled Cambodia for decades: The nation is unable to release its ghosts, yet at times is wholly capable of disregarding them.