"There are 48 bodies in this one," said the teen-aged farmer, gesturing toward shallow trenches, cutting through the fields outside this community in Siem Reap Province. "Pol Pot killed them in 1977."
By Cambodian standards, the grave was not large, but it conveyed as well as any a story of mammoth bloodletting. Skulls and rib bones lay bleaching in the tropical sun. Tufts of human hair showed through the soil. Bits of rotting clothing the dead had worn were scattered about.
The visit to the grave was not on my official agenda. It followed an unscheduled stop in Puok to talk to villagers about living conditions there. Soon conversation turned to the khmer Rouge years. Yes, they said, there were executions. The young farmer was quickly told to take the visitor to view the evidence for himself.
Educating foreigners about crimes the country endured during the four-year Khmer Rouge rule has become a national obsession. In towns and rural communities, people approach visitors to tell endless tales of loved ones lost to mass executions and untreated disease.
Pol Pot has become a personification of evil, like a demon in Cambodian mythology. It is always "Pol Pot killed my husband," or "Pol Pot destroyed the temple," as if the Khmer Rouge leader had the power to be personally present at each atrocity.
In a few Cambodians, the killing has produced a seemingly callous indifference. Around the country mass graves have been dug up by people searching for gold teeth. Often the bones are left exposed -- as in Puok -- where they become food for stray dogs.
But inside others, there remain deep psychological scars that can be reopened by a chance remark.
Seeking information about Cambodia's barter economy, I talked with a midle-aged woman selling blouses in a Phnom Penh marketplace. She clearly enjoyed the interview, and gave quick, good-natured replies to my questions.
As an afterthought I asked what she had done before the war. The transformation was immediate: tears welled in her eyes and her voice became unsteady. Slowly the story emerged of her former life in the city, as the wife of a railway official.
After 1975 he fell victim to Khmer Rouge executions, apparently because of his service with a former regime. Her three children were students. They too were killed. She now lived alone with a niece, one of her few surviving relatives.
The Khmer Rouge rule also took a heavy toll in property, both through neglect and outright vandalism.
When the cities were captured in 1975, people were forced to abandon thousands of automobiles views as symbols of obsolete privilege. Today the rusting hulks clog streets everywhere and little the shoulders of every road leading from Phnom Penh.
Factory machinery was left to rust when the cities were evacuated. National highways, buffeted by monsoon rains and floods, were not maintained and today present an obstacle course of potholes.
Deliberate destruction often centered on religious edifices. At Chbar Ampeau Temple just south of Phnom Penh, the main altar and image of the Buddha were smashed, apparently by Khmer Rouge vandals.
The Heng Samrin government has preserved sites of the larger atrocities as national monuments. Foremost is the Tuol Sleng High School, transformed by the Khmer Rouge into a prison and execution center.
Walking through Tuol Sleng, few visitors fail to be moved by the exhibits there: brick walls erected in classrooms to create rows of tiny cells, interrogation rooms that still have blackboards on the wall.
On display are Khmer Rouge mug shots of 2,000 prisoners. Most stare into the camera in blank terror, their arms, bound behind them. Heng Samrin officials say only four persons survived.
Khmer Rouge cameras also recorded executions. Photos show corpses with their throats slit, laid out on the checkerboard tile floors found throughout the school, identification numbers on their chests.
While officials may consider preserving places like Tuol Sleng a mark of respect to the dead, keeping alive dark memories also serves a political purpose. It puts the new government in it's best light and helps excuse the presence of about 200,000 Vietnamese troops in Cambodia.
The Khmer Rouge also provide a ready scapegoat for the government's own shortcomings. If relief shipments are slow in reaching hungry villages, it is because Pol Pot has destroyed the roads and trucks, officials say, not because Heng Samrin's officials have misused the 1,100 trucks provided by foreign countries since last fall.
In fact, Pol Pot is now routinely blamed for destruction most likely caused by American bombs in the early 1970s. When officials are asked why a particular building is missing its roof or a bridge is down, they instinctively respond "Pol Pot destroyed it."