Radar helps re­searchers probe Kh­mer Rouge-era mass graves

The Phnom Penh Post - - LIFESTYLE - Suy Se and Joe Free­man

AMAN walks gin­gerly over a small field in ru­ral Cam­bo­dia, push­ing a lawn­mower-like con­trap­tion that de­ploys ground-pen­e­trat­ing radar to un­earth clues of mass graves.

The pi­lot project is twin­ning tech­nol­ogy and field­work to lo­cate re­mains of vic­tims of the Kh­mer Rouge, the ul­tra-Maoist regime, whose quest to build an agrar­ian utopia from 1975-79 left an es­ti­mated two mil­lion Cam­bo­di­ans dead.

Hacked to death, starved, over­worked or rav­aged by ill­ness, their bod­ies were dumped in hastily dug pits all over the coun­try. They were thrown in rice pad­dies, down caves and on the grounds of Bud­dhist monas­ter­ies.

Many of the “Killing Fields” have been logged, pro­vid­ing ex­perts with an es­ti­mate of 20,000 mass graves – which is de­fined as a pit con­tain­ing four or more bod­ies – through­out the coun­try.

But re­searchers are now turn­ing to radar to un­cover more de­tails on the ex­ist­ing sites – such as how many bod­ies they might con­tain – and find new ones.

“This is t he first time ever t hat we have used high-end tech­nolog y in Cam­bo­dia to lo­cate mass graves cre­ated by the Kh­mer Rouge,” said Pheng Pong Rasy from the Doc­u­men­ta­tion Cen­ter of Cam­bo­dia (DC-Cam), which is over­see­ing the ef for t.

He added that DC-Cam de­cided to start the new search in the east­ern prov­ince of Prey Veng, where the Kh­mer Rouge’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment had some of its early gains.

“The children must know their own his­tory, what hap­pened in their lo­ca­tion,” he said.

‘How many vic­tims’

They be­gan in late Oc­to­ber next to build­ings at Me­sang High School – speci­fica lly plots close to some con­crete toi­lets and an out­door cafe­te­ria.

The area was once a wor­ship site but the Kh­mer Rouge con­verted it into a place for ex­e­cu­tions. Af­ter the regime fell a school was built nearby.

Stu­dents and res­i­dents helped clear the over­grown area and op­er­a­tors from Spar­rowHawk Far East, a new Ph­nom Penh-based com­pany tapped to test out the idea, walked over it send­ing radar sig­nals be­low that can later be de­vel­oped into three-di­men­sional im­ages.

“When there is an ob­ject un­der­ground or the ground has been dis­turbed be­fore, if there was a hole dug, it will give off a dif­fer­ent sig­na­ture,” man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Michael Hen­shaw said.

“It’s good for find­ing un­der­ground util­i­ties like water pipes and elec­tric pipes, it’s good for ar­chae­ol­ogy to find old struc­tures un­der­ground,” he said. “But it’s also been used to find mass graves.”

Kh­mer Rouge re­searchers have since the 1990s re­lied mainly on metic­u­lous in­ter­views with the regime’s vic­tims and per­pe­tra­tors to pin­point the lo­ca­tions of mass graves.

Else­where radar has helped lo­cate in­dige­nous burial sites – graves from the Span­ish Civil War in 193639 and vic­tims of the 1990s con­flict in Bos­nia.

In Septem­ber, it also aided in the dis­cov­ery of at least 166 bod­ies in the Mex­i­can state of Ver­acruz, a ter­ri­tory plagued by drug car­tels.

Hen­shaw said the re­sults can bring about a greater un­der­stand­ing of what hap­pened in Cam­bo­dia.

“We can try to put a bet­ter number on how many vic­tims there ac­tu­ally were,” he said.

As cu­ri­ous stu­dents look on, Hen­shaw ex­am­ines pre­lim­i­nary re­sults on a screen while the sun, in­ter­rupted by the oc­ca­sional rain shower, beats down.

‘Died with­out jus­tice’

Hen­shaw points to what he calls “anom­alies”, which look like small ridges next to each other, pos­si­bly sig­ni­fy­ing de­com­posed re­mains.

“But t his def­i­nitely tel ls you that there is some­thing un­der the ground, and t here’s a lot of it.”

Spar­rowHawk is plug­ging the data into spe­cial soft­ware and pre­par­ing a full re­port on their find­ings, and DC-CAM will then make a de­ci­sion on how far to repli­cate the study.

No mat­ter the re­sults from Prey Veng, there will be no ex­ca­va­tions and re­buri­als. In keep­ing with lo­cal tra­di­tion, the re­mains will not be dis­turbed and will stay where they are.

“They al­ready died with­out jus­tice, so if we dig up graves, it will de­stroy their souls,” Pong Rasy said. “We just want to know how many bod­ies a re in t he g raves.”

DC-Cam main­tains a data­base of mass graves pre­vi­ously dis­cov­ered, and it has pro­vided in­for­ma­tion on sites to a war crimes tri­bunal that has con­victed two top Kh­mer Rouge of­fi­cials and a chief jailer.

But DC-Cam di­rec­tor Youk Ch­hang said the picture is still in­com­plete.

“Crimes do not end at a tri­bunal,” he said, adding that a bet­ter fu­ture for Cam­bo­dia re­quired “un­der­stand­ing the hor­rors” of its past.

“We should not stop search­ing for the an­swers”.


Pheng Pong Rasy (third from left) from the Doc­u­men­ta­tion Cen­ter of Cam­bo­dia and David MacMil­lan (fourth from left), an ex­pert from Spar­rowHawk Far East com­pany, pray with two teach­ers by a spirit house be­fore a search for mass graves at a school com­pound in Prey Veng prov­ince on Oc­to­ber 24.


David MacMil­lan op­er­ates a ground-pen­e­trat­ing radar ma­chine dur­ing a search for mass graves at a school com­pound in Prey Veng prov­ince.


Cam­bo­dian stu­dents clear the site be­fore ex­perts us­ing ground-pen­e­trat­ing radar ma­chine search for mass graves in Prey Veng prov­ince.

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