ANLONG VENG, Cambodia – Ten years after the death of brutal Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, his cremation site has become a symbol of spiritual comfort to some in the village where he died.
Villagers pray at the site, asking for blessings of luck, happiness and even protection from malaria — despite the mayhem he wrought upon their country. He died on April 15, 1998, apparently of heart failure.
"I know it is odd, but I just do as many people here do, asking for happiness from his spirit," said Orn Pheap, a 37-year-old woman who lost a grandfather and two uncles during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror from 1975 to 1979.
• To see photos of the Pol Pot Shrine, click here.
"I don't know how long I can stay angry with him, since he is already dead," she said. Her house sits 100 yards from the site.
Officials in Anlong Veng, 190 miles north of the capital, Phnom Penh, say only few of the area's 35,000 residents pray at the site.
For most, Pol Pot is remembered as a murderous tyrant with fanatical communist beliefs. Under his leadership, the Khmer Rouge turned the country into a vast slave labor camp, causing the deaths of some 1.7 million people from starvation, forced labor and execution.
But Cambodians believe in the influence of spirits and superstitious forces on their daily lives and fortunes, which may be why some worship at the site.
Last week, the site — a pile of dirt covered by a knee-high corrugated zinc roof — was cluttered with clay jars filled with half-burned incense sticks, a sign of prayer and worship.
Many may still view their former tormentor as a powerful figure, said Philip Short, author of "Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare," a biography of the former despot.
"Evil or good is not the issue," Short said in an e-mail. "He has imposed himself on Cambodians' imaginations, and in that sense he lives on" in the spirit world.
Once a jungle war zone, Anlong Veng is now a sprawling border market town bustling with the kind of capitalist activities Pol Pot and his comrades sought to stamp out. Ramshackle shops are filled with clothing, house wares, pirated DVDs and other goods from nearby Thailand.
Cambodian pop songs blare from a coffee shop near the cremation site, which has been designated a tourist attraction. It is among the few remnants of Khmer Rouge history, which the government is trying to preserve.
Some Cambodians have traveled to Anlong Veng to spit on the site, which is referred to as his grave, and curse him in anger, said 37-year-old Sat Narin, who owns a nearby clothing shop.
"Given his bad reputation, he should not be venerated," he said. "But somehow he is popular with some people."
Among the worshippers who seek blessings from Pol Pot's ghost are ethnic Vietnamese who live in the community — a sharp irony given Pol Pot's massacres of ethnic Vietnamese during his rule.
A 33-year-old Vietnamese resident, who goes by her adopted Cambodian name of Van Sothy, recalled a nightmare in which she saw a black-clad man sitting on a tree near her hut.
When she described the vision to her Cambodian neighbors, they advised her to bring offerings of fruit and boiled chicken to the cremation site to ask his spirit for protection.
"I have prayed at his grave ever since. I just want to show some respect to the spiritual master of the land," she said.
If Pol Pot were alive, he would likely be facing war crimes charges along with five of his former comrades currently detained by Cambodia's U.N.-backed genocide tribunal. The long-delayed trials are expected to start later this year.
Nhem En, who was forced to work as the photographer at the Khmer Rouge's Tuol Sleng torture center in Phnom Penh, says he is setting up his own museum in Anlong Veng about the communist group — not to glorify them but for educational purposes.
He too used to light incense and pray at the site, he said, but "only for him not to butcher people again in his next life."