February 14, 2004
Over 20 years had passed since my father buried my brother, Sakeda, and my grandparents, Kong Sreng and Yey Eng in Battambang. Before the Khmer Rouge, family’s of the deceased conducted intricate funeral ceremonies for their loved ones in traditional Cambodian culture. However, the Khmer Rouge did not allow any mourning or attachments to family. Tradition and culture was destroyed and humanity along with it.
My father had to bury his son and parents-in-law without any Buddhist ceremonies, without any monks to help guide them into the next life. There was nothing he could do to commemorate their death or provide any offerings to them in the afterlife.
Instead, he had to bury his family unceremoniously and carry on as if nothing happened. My uncle, Pa Om, felt he never completed his duty as the filial son in his parents’ death. Even though decades had passed, finding these bones meant they could finally give the proper rituals for their loved ones. More so, they could find peace and closure through this process.
My father thought if he ever had the chance to go back to Oak-a-Bao, he was sure he could find the bones to give them a proper burial. For years, he also wanted to go back but was concerned about the safety. My uncle Om Ngat, who had lived in Battambang since 1979, was uncertain whether it was still safe to go. Pa Om was determined with or without anyone’s help. Finally they all decided they would take the chance and go together.
We arrived at the Teo Hotel in Battambang on February 13th. That night they put together a plan to go back to Oak-a-Bao. They were going to leave at dawn and travel by moto bikes. They would bring three other people with them for extra protection.
I desperately wanted to go too. Here was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see where I was born and to see the burial grounds of my brother and grandparents. Everyone thought it was too dangerous for me to go. They didn’t know whether there would still be Khmer Rouge cadres or even landmines around the area.
The next morning, my father and uncles left with the sunrise. I heard a commotion in the hallway and then suddenly there was a knock at my door. It was my mom. She came to tell me that she found Kane, and he was on the way to visit us. An hour later he finally arrived with Thol, the friend who found him.
The reunion with Kane was surreal. I never imagined I would ever come face to face with the man who saved our lives over 20 years ago. No words ever seemed to suffice when I told him “thank you for saving our family.”
He was a man of few words. Perhaps he wasn’t entirely sure why I was thanking him so much. Perhaps he didn’t know how much he helped our family. He was a modest man and never asked for anything in return.
He wondered where my father was and we told him that he had gone to Oak-a-Bao with my uncles to try to find the graves of our family. I told him I wanted to go too. He said that it wasn’t dangerous and it would be safe for us to go.
Seconds later, my uncle called to let us know where they were. They didn’t get too far. My mother told them that we found Kane. She paused for a moment then asked Kane if he could take us there. He said he would.
She told my father and uncles to stay put and that we would meet them there shortly. Everything happened so fast, but seemed so well orchestrated by something beyond our control. It was all coming together effortlessly and miraculously.
We rented a large van to go to Oak-a-Bao. We saw them on the side of the main road. My father was so happy to see Kane he cried. “This is my friend who helped us out during the bad time”, he said to me, to explain who he was. It was an unforgettable moment in a series of unforgettable moments that day.
We all jumped in the van. On the way there, my father told stories and jokes to lighten the mood in the car. Everyone was tense and quiet unsure of what was waiting for us in Oak-a-Bao. For me, it was finally seeing my birthplace. For Kane it was going back to a complicated past. For my parents it was to revisit the area that held so many painful memories. For my Pa Om, it was fulfilling a mission he carried so long.
We drove on a main road for a while before turning off to a narrow dirt road. It was like a maze. We were lucky to have Kane there to tell us where to go. With every twist and turns on the road, we were getting farther and farther away from civilization as we knew it. There was no way my father and uncles could have found this place on their own.
Finding the Bones
The van finally stopped. We were here. I couldn’t believe the moment had come. I wondered how my parents could handle going back to so much heartache. I’m not sure if I would have had the strength to go back to Cambodia, let alone the center of the pain, after everything they lost. I marveled at their strength and resilience.
I have always wondered what my birthplace looked like. My mother told me I was born in a rudimentary thatched hut that my father built. We were living in seclusion. Having lived in the U.S. for most of my life, I never could have imagined what that would have looked like. As hard as I tried, those images couldn’t come to life for me.
But here I was, far away from the main roads, off the beaten path. There was nothing around except a few palm trees, skinny cows grazing on sparse grass, dry prickly bushes, the hard dusty dirt beneath our feet, and a few thatched huts. Could one of them be the place I was born in?
But our visit to Oak-a-Bao was more than seeing my birthplace. It was to find the burial sites of my brother and grandparents. Since my father buried them, he was sure he would know how to find them, even after 20 years later. But he underestimated the hands of time erasing remnants the past, and the distance of time fading his memory.
We were an entourage following him around in the 90 plus degree heat in the open fields of Battambang. The sun was scorching down on us. There was very little shade. The trees that may have once been there for us to hide from the world were now few and far between.
The narrow main road where we parked our van was the starting point. My father was looking for a tamarind tree and a set of bushes. These were the bushes that he buried the dead, he said. He easily found the large tamarind tree from the narrow road, but the bushes were scattered everywhere throughout the village.
He recognized a few sights and recalled a few things but he was mostly uncertain. The trees that were once there were cut down. The thatched huts that once filled the place were dismantled and gone. The Karethan, the village center where he worked, disappeared. The place had changed beyond recognition.
Villagers popped out of their homes as soon as we arrived to see what this group was doing on their land. It was clear we were not part of the community. Some of them lived in the village since the Khmer Rouge regime. A few of them recognized Kane. They tried to help us find the burial grounds but also tried to manage our expectations. They told us it was highly unlikely those bones would still be around after all these years. They said after the war, looters would dig up graves to find something of value and years later the area had been cleared so that people could cultivate the land to farm.
It was getting hot, we were all getting tired and impatient. With every step we were starting to lose hope that we would ever find the graves. Then, my father spotted some familiar bushes where he thought he buried them near. A villager who had been following us said that, although most of the land had been cleared this area was untouched. He gave us hope. My father said, “I think this is it”. We decided to go for it.
Before we started to dig, we lite incense and prayed. My father was the first to say the prayers for the group. His voice cracked as he said,
"Mom, Dad, Sakeda, if you are indeed here, we are here to visit you. To find the bones to do a bonn. I don't know if this is the right place, but I pray this is it. Please help us."
Then he stuck the incense into the hard dirt.
My mother and her brothers crouched down on the dirt next. They lit the incense and stuck it to the ground. No prayers were said out loud, just quietly thinking. They all sat next to each other, heads down and prayed to themselves. After a few solemn moments my mother and Om Ngat got up. Pa Om sat there longer.
It was finally my turn. We ran out of incense, but it didn't matter. I mourned over the loss of the grandparents and brother I never had the chance to know. I felt much pain and sorrow thinking of how they died. All of their deaths could have been prevented had this Khmer Rouge society not been cruel and evil. I was angry that their lives were wasted. And in the end, what was it all for? Nothing.
I sat there quietly praying that their souls were at peace, no longer suffering. Throughout the entire time, Kane was by my side and when I was done, he got up with me.
After the prayers, the villagers helped us dig up the dirt. They brought shovels and hoes. They were just as eager to see if there were indeed bones buried there. We held our breath knowing that the odds weren’t in our favor.
As the digging commenced the dry dirt scattered dust around us. We covered our faces with a krama. The cool dry season compacted the dirt and made difficult to breakthrough. With every strike, the weak hoe hit the hardened dirt bluntly and at times sounded like it was going to break their tools in half. Meanwhile, half naked children were surrounding us, wondering what we were doing. Every now and then rocks were thrown by the wayside. It didn’t look promising with every subsequent strike.
After a while, it was apparent that this was not the place. We could not find the bones. It was an impossible mission to start off with. We walked away empty handed but not completely defeated. Although we didn’t find the bones in the end, there was something powerfully meaningful in going back to try.
After the search ended we went back to civilization, back to have a late lunch at my aunt’s childhood home. Everyone’s mood was lighter. My uncle, Pa Om, was back to being playful and once again, I saw his boyish grin. My father spent time catching up with Kane over lunch and coconut juice.
Fate brought us back to Battambang for a reason. It miraculously brought us to Kane, so that we could finally thank him for saving our lives. We also never would have found Oak-a-bao if we didn't find Kane. It changed my itinerary so I could be there to see where I was born and to visit my brother and grandparents burial grounds.
As tragic as it is to think of all the pain and suffering that occurred there, it was also a great gift for me to see with my own eyes the origins of my childhood and to be in that physical space to mourn for those I never had a chance to know. Being back in Oak-a-bao provided a real tangible connection to a dark but important time in my family's history. It was part of a closure I did not know I needed, nor even sought, but nonetheless embraced.
For my parents and my uncles, being back in Oak-A-Bao brought a different type of closure, one they needed for years, especially my uncle, Pa Om. Believing that this was the site of their burial helped to bring them closer to their loved ones. It gave them a semblance of catharsis, a moment of peace, to be in that physical place to mourn, something that they were denied for so long.
All images © Banyanblog 2014
Click here to read "Part I: Back to Battambang"