After 23 years, Om Changoeun said goodbye Sunday morning.
He rocked back and forth, his fingers stiff in prayer as four monks chanted, hoping to send the dead of Tuol Sleng to a peaceful, if delayed, rest.
A soldier for the Lon Nol regime, Om Changoeun, 52, lost all 10 members of his family—including his wife, his parents, his 5-year-old son and his 3-year-old daughter—to the Khmer Rouge.
“I’m the only one left,” he said.
On Sunday, after years of debate and controversy, Om Changoeun joined a dozen or so Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum staff members and guests to wish the dead well and take down the infamous skull map that has hung in the museum for more than two decades.
The map was for many tourists the symbol of Khmer Rouge brutality. For many Cambodians, it was an insult.
“It’s like hanging people twice,” King Norodom Sihanouk once said of the map, made from the splintered skulls and bones of Khmer Rouge victims.
After the monks’ ceremony, Tuol Sleng staff members slipped on cotton dust masks and rubber gloves. With rusted pliers and wire cutters, they snipped the wires holding the bones, some turned a deep and shimmering brown with age. Slowly they lowered each skull, handing them down a line to the 2 1/2-meter glass-cased shelves waiting to hold the remains.
At one point, a skull slipped out of a worker’s hands, shattering when it hit the floor.
Authorities kept the ceremony, called a Bang Sakol, low key. Some early-morning tourists at the museum were not even aware that as they looked at the skull map for the first time they were also looking at it for the last time.
“It’s a bit gaudy,” said John Parkinson, a professor from the north of England traveling with his wife, Jan.
Parkinson said Tuol Sleng was an important stop on his Asian vacation. He was last in the region in Thailand in 1973, when Cambodia found itself engulfed in civil war. US bombers flew in from Thailand to pound the Cambodian countryside.
“The east of Thailand was one of those no-go areas, where nobody went and nobody asked questions,” he said. “I’m here piecing together the history.”
“We want people to ask why these people did this,” said Tuol Sleng director Sopheara Chey.
There were more journalists at Tuol Sleng then worshippers Sunday. Many reporters fell to their knees as the monks sprinkled water and jasmine buds to bless the crowd.
Regardless of the attendence, Sunday’s ceremony sent a special message in the wake of the collapse of efforts to convene a Khmer Rouge tribunal, according to Cambodian Documentation Center executive director Youk Chhang.
“I hope the international community appreciates the efforts of the Cambodian people to reconcile,” he said, speaking outside the molded gray walls of the former torture center.
After five years of negotiation, the Khmer Rouge tribunal collapsed Feb 8 when the UN pulled out, saying Cambodia had refused to agree on the makeup of the tribunal.
It’s up to people of good will to “pressure” both sides into returning to the negotiating table, according to Youk Chhang. “We can’t reconcile this because it’s a legal matter,” he said.
Although Youk Chhang said both sides must put aside their differences, he put much of the burden on the world body.
“The UN has the obligation to act. People can try and find an exit,” he said. “But you cannot escape. The victims still ask why.”
Not just the victims.
“That’s part of the reason for coming—to try and understand,” John Parkinson said.
Om Changoeun also needs to understand.
“Why did they kill my family?” he asked. “I don’t know.”
(Additional reporting by Matt McKinney)
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