Two terrible scars on her left arm are the only tenuous clues as to what may have happened to Ro Cham H’pnhieng.
Since emerging filthy, naked and hunched from the dense jungle of remote northeastern Cambodia last week she has been cleaned, clothed and embraced by the family who claims that it last saw her 18 years ago. But she clearly does not yet feel at home.
While showing no fear of people, she has very little interest in them. She neither smiles nor frowns. When the woman who says she is her mother enfolds her in an embrace she fails to respond, only staring at her quizzically with sad eyes.
Ksor Lou, the man who claimed to recognise her immediately as his daughter, welcomes visitors warmly to the family’s two-room shack, which has gaping holes in its thatch. He believes that the girl, who was remembered by the family at every mealtime during her long disappearance, can understand some simple speech.
She can say a few words. But language, it seems, is one of the skills that she has forgotten since vanishing while herding buffalo as an eight-year-old. She grunts and occasionally burbles, but most of the time remains silent, gazing impassively at visitors.
Her father, the policeman in the village of Un, is optimistic. He believes that spirits looked after her and that her burbling could be another tribal language that nobody in his village understands. “Soon she will learn to speak, then one day she will marry and have children,” he told The Times.
Ro Cham H’pnhieng eats meat and fruit but refuses rice. She is painfully thin, but does not look as if she has been living like a wild animal for years.
The scars on her arm, which appear to be the result of being bound for months or years, suggest that she may have spent time as a captive in a country where the mentally ill are commonly tied up. But her father believes they are from a snare laid for animals that she fought free of. He recognises her from a different scar, one he claims that she received while playing with a knife as a child. “And she looks so much like her mother,” he said happily.
His 19-year-old daughter Ro Cham Konty is also convinced. “I am sure that she is my big sister. She even looks like me,” she said. The family have to watch Ro Cham H’pnhieng round the clock to make sure that she does not run off back to the jungle, as she has tried to several times. Her mother constantly pulls back on the clothes that she tries to take off.
The area is one of the most remote in Asia. Until a few years ago, when cashew nut farmers started to clear the forest, it was wild country populated by tribes who, unlike most Cambodians, are animist rather than Buddhist. Belief in legends of wild men living in the forest with powerful spirits is strong, and animals such as tigers are a constant peril.
It is also impoverished. Mr Ksor’s shack is home to his six grown-up children and his grandchildren. The only link with the outside world is an unmade road thick with a carpet of dust. The nearest town is a three-hour drive;Phnom Penh, the capital, 13 hours.
Little of note happens in the village usually, and the reappearance of Ro Cham H’pnhieng has brought hundreds of villagers to see her and pay homage with gifts of money and food to one blessed by the jungle spirits. Her father nudges a bowl of donations towards visitors with a hint that they are a poor family in need of help, but he seems so genuinely overjoyed at the return of his daughter that a hoax seems unthinkable.
Of the six-year-old who vanished with her in 1989 — a cousin, not a daughter, as first reported — there is no word and only vague plans for a new search. “The jungle is very big and we do not know her fate,” Mr Ksor said. He doubts the existence of the “wild man” who loggers said was with his daughter when they captured her stealing food.
After the girls’ disappearance Mr Ksor sacrificed a buffalo to the spirits and villagers carried out lengthy searches. “For eight months we saw footprints in the forest and we tried to follow them but we never could track down those girls,” he said.
He admits that he has no idea how the young woman who he believes is his daughter feels about returning to what he is sure is her family. He said: “Her face is exactly the same now as it was when she arrived: expressionless. She has betrayed no feelings to us.”