In the days before the Khmer Rouge, it was Ay Sophal’s garden, a shady little area off the veranda of his home near what was then Tuol Sleng High School.
Then the holocaust came, and Ay Sophal was driven out of what had been a quiet neighborhood in southern Phnom Penh.
Four years later, when he returned, he could barely believe his eyes. The neighborhood was shattered, deserted. His tidy lot at 63 Street 350, was so overgrown the garden looked like jungle.
Like millions of Cambodians, Ay Sophal has rebuilt his life. Over the years, he said has prospered, building a second house for his family on the roomy lot.
But not until last week, when work began on a third structure, did his garden give up its dark secret: the remains of 11 Khmer Rouge torture victims, apparently slain at Tuol Sleng Prison and dumped in a mass grave.
Ay Sophal, a deeply religious man, said he feels he has been blessed by what some would consider a horrifying discovery.
“I was very surprised, and very happy to find them,’’ he said Tuesday. “I invited four monks to come here and perform a ceremony for their souls.’’
He said he is honored to be able to bring peace to those who died so cruelly. “I respect these bodies as if they were my own relatives,’’ he said. After all, he said, “they never created any problems for me or my family.’’
Ay Sophal and his neighbors said his discovery is not the first time remains have been found in the vicinity of the notorious Khmer Rouge prison.
“Other bodies have been found,’’ he said quietly. But most of the others “didn’t go to the authorities about it.’’
As many as 20,000 people were interrogated and tortured at Tuol Sleng during the four-year reign of the Khmer Rouge. Most were were trucked to the Choeung Ek killing fields, south of the city, where they were killed and buried in mass graves.
But some didn’t make it that far. Neighbors trade tales of bodies found rotting in houses by returning evacuees, or bones unearthed by gardeners.
Some say ghosts haunt the streets surrounding the school. Ay Sophal said he’s never seen them, and they wouldn’t worry him if they did—just as he doesn’t mind living so close to the former prison.
“In my mind, I feel peaceful,’’ he said. “I am not afraid, because I have tried to live a good life. So many innocent people were killed—we cannot imagine how angry they are.’’
On Dec 28, 1999, when former Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea defected to the government, Prime Minister Hun Sen welcomed them, saying, “we must dig a hole and bury the past.’’
One woman living a stone’s throw from the prison said she believes it’s not that easy. The sins of the past will continue to surface, just like the long-buried bodies of Street 350, she said.
She said the recent government fuss over International Children’s Day reminded her of 1978, when she was a 15-year-old ordered to cook for the Khmer Rouge in Kompong Cham.
She told of the day she saw them kill 150 children with axes and machetes. And she recalled when a soldier gave her a human heart and ordered her to cook it. “I saw this with my own eyes,’’ she said. “Why didn’t they talk about that on Children’s Day?’’
“The Khmer Rouge must be tried,’’ said her husband. “They should be tried because they killed more than a million people, and they should talk about why they killed those children.
“If they aren’t tried, the people who died won’t rest.’’