Fate of Cambodian Jungle Woman's Missing Sister Remains a Mystery

The father sets hot water before his daughter in their wooden shack. She reaches out to touch it. Then she recoils in shock and runs from the room.

After 18 years lost in the jungles of northeast Cambodia, she has forgotten what hot water is, along with all the other rudimentary comforts of peasant life.

This weekend the questions are multiplying about how the girl vanished in 1989, what she endured in the jungle and why she was not found until villagers stood guard to catch a thief last weekend.

Her fear was what struck the first independent eyewitnesses to see her, Yun Samean and Erik Wasson, the reporters who published their first-hand account in yesterday’s Cambodia Daily newspaper.

“She just sat there and stared at us remaining entirely quiet,” said Yun Samean Saturday. “She seemed very frightened.

“She is so afraid of unfamiliar things that when her father boiled water, she reached out to touch it and was so surprised to find it was hot that she ran away to her room.”

The girl has already tried to flee once, tearing off her clothes to rush back into the jungle, said Yun Samean.

She has been living for a week in a village of the Phnong ethnic minority, who inhabit the jungles of northeastern Cambodia, at least 16 hours’ drive from the capital, Phnom Penh.

Although the Phnong follow no organized religion, the family took her to a Buddhist pagoda, where monks sprinkled her with holy water and chanted sutras to calm her spirit.

Now she has become entranced by the family’s collection of DVDs. Like many poor rural Cambodians, they have enough money for an electrical generator and a DVD player.

She is trying to get used to life among the family that has claimed her as their long-lost daughter and spends her days and nights watching the films or sitting glassy-eyed while curious locals come to stare at her.

They attribute the girl’s loss of speech and traumatized behavior to 18 years as the companion of a jungle spirit who has now abandoned her.

There is a mystery over the figure of a wild, ragged man with glaring eyes and a sword, who fled into the jungle when the girl was found. Some villagers say he was the spirit. And there is a further enigma over the fate of the girl’s sister, who vanished on the same day in 1989.

Police, social workers and members of the extended village family are bemused by the woman’s reappearance and there is as much confusion over her future as her past.

The girl’s name is Rocham Phoeung, now 28, and her missing sister was called Rocham Boeung, according to the man who says he is their father, local policeman Sar Yo, 45.

“She was naked and walking in a bending-forward position like a monkey, exactly like a monkey," he said. "She was bare-bones skinny.”

But he checked her right arm. There he found a scar, just as his daughter had from an accident with a knife before she disappeared: “She looked terrible, but despite all that, she is my child.”

Rochom Khamphi, 25, her brother, said: “I saw the scar right away and I knew that she is my sister. Then tears just rolled from my eyes. That’s the proof. I remember it very clearly — I’m not making it up, because I was the one who caused the injury.”

The villagers told how they had been pestered in recent months by a strange thief, who stole food from rations left by workers around a small sawmill on the fringe of the forest.

The sawmill workers lay in wait last Saturday morning. To their amazement, a naked, dirty woman came out of the undergrowth on all fours, like a big cat. She was followed by an unkempt, straggle-haired man, also naked, who had a sword in his hand. The two parties stared at each other in mutual terror.

“The villagers told us they were very frightened because the man had great wide glaring eyes,” said Yun Samean.

Recovering their wits, the villagers chased the pair but the man vanished. They surrounded the girl and brought her to the nearest settlement, a village called O’Yadaw.

“The family told us they recognized her at once,” said Yun Samean, “and I could see that she has a strong resemblance to her sister and her mother.”

The mother, Rocham Soy, 41, told him: “This is my daughter, I am sure of it.” She now yearns to know what became of her other missing daughter.

The family has consented to medical tests to establish their relationship but they face a dilemma. Rocham Phoeung cannot communicate in any tongue and can shed no light on what befell her sister or what happened to her in the jungle.

She appears relatively normal after a week in which she was bathed, given a haircut and provided with ordinary Cambodian clothes. But the reporters noted a thick weal above her left wrist, suggesting she may have been tied up for long periods.

The local police, who are as fearful of ghosts and spirits as most Cambodians, have declined to go into the jungle in pursuit of the fugitive wild man.

Rocham Phoeung’s family hope she can learn to speak again, that she may get psychological help and go back to school, 18 years late.

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