Yung Soknov was a good student and daughter. By the age of 14, she spent most of her free time earning money for her impoverished parents and taking care of her younger siblings. By the age of 20, Soknov was a prominent unionist at a garment factory near Phnom Penh, where she helped her colleagues fight for better conditions, said Peou Heng, her 70-year-old mother.
Soknov was one of a few hundred workers who joined a pro-democracy protest led by Sam Rainsy on March 30, 1997. She never come back home.
“I was working in a factory, it was around 9 am. One of her two friends, who accompanied her, came back covered in blood. She said ‘Soknov got lost, there was a grenade attack, she must be dead because she was near me and many people surrounded me had collapsed,’” her mother said from her Ang Snuol district, Kandal province home.
A few days after the attack, Peou found the bodies of her daughter and niece covered in a white shroud among others at a pagoda in Phnom Penh.
Soknov, then 20, was one of 16 victims, including children, killed during the grenade attack almost 20 years ago. Some 100 people were injured.
Two decades on, victims and their family members who lost loved ones are still living in poverty and hoping for justice.
Speaking to VOA Khmer at her wooden house in Kandal province, Heng, a traditional medicine practitioner, said she would never forget her daughter’s generosity.
“Whenever I think of my daughter I cry, I can't stop my tears,” she said. “My living standard is poor; my daughter used to help us, she helped selling snacks for a living and then got a job in a factory in Phnom Penh.”
Heng said the loss of Soknov had a huge impact on the family.
Ros Kan, 44, is one of the more than 100 people who were injured during the attack. She still has shrapnel in her backbone, which gives her pain every time the weather changes. She was thrown to the ground by the force of the blast from the second grenade thrown by the unidentified attacker.
“I am scared when I hear thunder, I am traumatized, I am scared. This is one of my sicknesses, and my feeling is not as strong as before,” Kan said. “Physically, the effect is that I am still in pain, using medicine to curb my pain, I still take medicine every day.”
The shrapnel lodged near an artery, making it impossible for the local doctors to remove it. As a result she has lost her sight in her left eye. The doctors have told her she must wait until the shrapnel dislodges itself.
Kan spent six months in the hospital following the attack and afterwards underwent months of physiotherapy. In early 2000, she was married and had a daughter. But her marriage was short-lived and several years later she filed for divorce.
Kan says she does not regret going to the protest 20 years ago, and has become an active labor rights campaigner.
“My nature is loving justice and social work and every year the labor sector and workers still face troubles. Despite development, the fact that there are many jobs in Cambodia, the work pressure and problems like work conditions still exist,” she said.
“I have learned about labor law, I love this job, and will continue my work to help society. I hope the labor workers’ conditions will improve and there will be justice for them.”
Justice for the victims of the 1997 grenade attack, however, remains elusive.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a probe into the attack, which injured U.S. Citizen Ron Abney, then the country director of the International Republican Institute.
Khieu Sopheak, Ministry of Interior spokesman, told VOA Khmer last week that the official Cambodian investigation into the incident is still open, however, no leads as to the perpetrators have been discovered, following the death of the main suspect, nicknamed ‘Brasil’, during factional fighting in Phnom Penh in the same year as the attack.
“The case is still open, but the suspect was killed,” he said. “If there are any more clues, we will keep going with our investigation.”
Both Heng and Kan said the government should redouble its efforts to find justice for the victims.
“I am so old now. Everyday I wait for justice, for them to find the perpetrators who threw the grenade that killed my daughter,” Heng said. “I hope an international court and local court can join together to get justice for me.”
“But I’m not confident in the Cambodian courts. It’s been 20 years and they’ve not found anything,” she added.”
Kan said she was “unhappy, in suffering, and disappointed” by the lack of progress in the case.
Naly Pilorge, director of the local rights group Licadho, said it was not surprising that there had been no justice in the grenade attack case.
“During peacetime it was just one more example of the history and pattern of impunity in Cambodia that started in the 1970s,” she said.
“There are no credible answers, there was no credible investigation, and there is no possibility of one.”