Crime may pay, but so does virtue.
At least, that’s how Ay Sophal sees it. He owns the lot on Street 350 near the former Tuol Sleng High School where the bones of 11 people were found in 1979.
The bones belonged to prisoners who had been tortured by the Khmer Rouge during the four years when the school served as the S-21 interrogation center.
As many as 20,000 people were detained and tortured at the center between 1975 and 1979; most were taken to the Cheung Ek killing fields south of the city, where they were slain and buried in mass graves.
But an unknown number of victims were apparently buried near the school, in unmarked graves such as the one in Ay Sophal’s yard. For two years after bones were discovered at his house, they were covered with glass and shown by the Vietnamese occupation forces to visiting journalists and foreigners as proof of Khmer Rouge atrocities.
Eventually they were covered over again, and remained undisturbed until last year, when Ay Sophal decided to put up a new building on the part of his property where the bones had lain.
As a religious man, he arranged to exhume the bones and take them to Wat Chom Bok in Kompong Speu for a proper Buddhist ceremony.
“I respect these bodies as if they were my own relatives,” he said then. After all, “they never created problems for me and my family.”
Thursday, as ethnic Chinese families across Cambodia honored their ancestors in celebration of the Cheng Meng Se holiday, Ay Sophal said he believes the murdered victims are now at peace.
Their grave site has certainly changed beyond recognition. What had been a dirt yard shaded by banana trees is now a block of 10 two-story flats, sheathed in shiny pink tile, with elaborate gates, garages and balconies.
Ay Sophal said he contributed the former grave site while partners put up the cash to develop the flats. He expects to make some money on the deal, and that does not surprise him.
“If we help them, they will help us back,” he said of the 11 torture victims he unearthed. “Families that don’t [honor such religious obligations] stay poor.”
Ay Sophal will travel to Wat Chom Bok in a few days to take part in a special ceremony for the souls of the victims of the Khmer Rouge.
In the meantime, he said, he will include prayers for these dead as his family honors their ancestors for the Cheng Meng Se holiday.