Digging for Gold in the Killing Fields

What a macabre treasure hunt reveals about Cambodia’s uneasy relationship with its past.

Chey Mao with a fragment of bone

SRE LIEV, Cambodia—Squatting before the mound of bones, 68-year-old Chey Mao held her blue flip-flops in one hand and a fragment of skull in the other. “I’m looking for silver or gold—I need it to buy medicine,” she explained as she poked through the remains of her compatriots with a wrinkled finger.

Beneath the woman’s bare feet lay some 1,000 victims of the Khmer Rouge—save a few hundred souls whose bones were recently unearthed when villagers ransacked the killing field for gold.

A local farmer first spied a shiny earring inside the mass grave last month, when Vietnamese soldiers searching for the remains of their own POWs began digging at the site. The news traveled fast, and soon more than 400 gold-seeking villagers were hacking away at the ground in Sre Liev, a remote settlement about 80 miles southwest of the capital. By the week’s end, they had unearthed a total of 27 gold earrings and a single gold necklace in the macabre treasure hunt.

The meager findings represented a wealth of riches for the rural villagers. The tiny, impoverished settlement had sprung up five years earlier in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold, where factional fighting had ended only in the mid-1990s. Ex-cadres in faded military garb still surveyed the roads, glaring at our motorbike as we struggled to cross the waterlogged rice paddies one recent Saturday.

One of the 27 gold earrings unearthed at Sre Liev

By the time we arrived at the site—one week after the first villager had struck gold—there was precious little left to dig. The remains of splintered trees, cut down during the digging frenzy, stood between the pits that covered the upended field. After the week’s constant rainfall, it was difficult to walk between the exhumed graves without slipping right into them. Shirtless children in muddy shorts clung to the edges of the small crowd that had gathered at the site, silent and staring as we walked toward the remains piled in the center.

Chey Mao, who had been sifting through the bones, picked up a short stick and started poking at the ground. “I’m too sick and weak to dig,” she said after a few minutes of fruitless excavation, then she asked us if we had any spare change.

The landowner’s father, a former Khmer Rouge officer, had warned Veth Semi not to farm the gravesite when he gave her the plot of land a decade ago, to avoid disturbing the souls below. Some were victims of a forced-labor camp at a nearby irrigation project, but most had been trucked in from other provinces to be executed en masse, said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has mapped some 20,000 killing fields in the country and sent a team of researchers to Sre Liev last month.

Heeding her father’s warning, 30-year-old Semi tried to stave off the first round of gold-seekers who came to raid her land. But many of the diggers carried axes, and Semi and her husband had only one hoe, the farmer said as she squatted next to us, her large pregnant belly nearly touching the ground.

A boy digs through the bones and rags

Now, Semi said, the regime’s victims haunt the desecrated fields. “I used to be brave, but now I’m afraid to go looking for my buffaloes at night,” she said. “The ghosts have come here. They’ve lost their way and can’t get out.”

Its treasure exposed, the land has turned into a field of stricken souls. It’s a state of unease that has troubled Cambodia for decades: The nation is unable to release its ghosts, yet at times is wholly capable of disregarding them.

To date, not a single individual has been held accountable for the atrocities of the ultra-Maoist regime that has been blamed for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians. When the regime ended in 1979, former Khmer Rouge officers were simply absorbed back into the power structure, and time has made the distinctions between victim and perpetrator even hazier. The nation’s textbooks barely address the period, and an entire generation has grown up knowing astonishingly little about the traumas the country suffered.

Much hope is hinging on the U.N.-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, a long-delayed tribunal that will try the surviving leaders of the regime and is slated to begin this year. (Old age and infirmity have already felled Pol Pot, Ta Mok, and other top commanders.) But even if the tribunal achieves some form of national deliverance, so much time has passed that Cambodians’ own reactions to the regime have visibly diverged: Events that inspire one man’s trauma may well be another man’s gold. If and when reconciliation is possible, it may have to be a personal sort of reckoning with the country’s hungry ghosts.

After the crowds had dispersed, one Sre Liev villager took it upon himself to gather the shards of bone that the diggers had left behind in puddles of muddy water. “It’s not quiet here,” said Sao Son as he draped a few large leaves over the remains to shield them from the steady drizzle. “I put them in one place so the monks can come and give a prayer.”

The 66-year-old farmer still hated the Khmer Rouge for killing his four nephews, and he hoped the tribunal would deliver justice. But Sao Son hardly blamed his neighbors for joining the grave-looting. “The diggers were poor, they just wanted to get a little rice to eat,” he said, watching as the final stragglers combed the site with sticks, their necks bent intently toward the ground.

A crowd digs for gold left on the bodies of Khmer Rouge victims

A few diggers had been lucky enough to find a bit of gold to buy a cow or a week’s worth of provisions for their family. But the victims’ ghosts came to haunt them, too, howling in their homes after the gold-digging spree ended, said Chuon Da, the landowner’s husband. “The diggers will have a [Buddhist] ceremony this week—to express their thanks for finding the jewelry,” he said, watching as three children chased each other inside an upturned grave, pulling at each other’s muddied skirts.

Time may have numbed some of Cambodia’s anguish. But its 30-year-old bones still need to be put to rest. “Even the poorest person believes that the soul is still there in the bones,” said Youk Chhang. “The bones still speak, but now it’s a shell, a scar of suffering … You hardly see people cry anymore when they see them.”