Sleeping in a hammock strung between two tall trees, deep inside Prey Lang forest, environmental activist Phorn Sopheak was startled awake at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday morning when her parked motorbike toppled over onto her body.
Then she felt something dripping from her left foot.
The 25-year-old roused herself to examine the scene and saw a huge open gash across her toes. Terrified, she realized the liquid she felt was blood.
“I pulled my leg up and there was blood everywhere. I saw it and I just started screaming and looked away immediately because I was so scared,” Ms. Sopheak said from her bed at Phnom Penh’s Chenda Polyclinic on Friday.
Ms. Sopheak said there was no trace of any assailant on the scene when she woke up, but was in no doubt that she had been attacked by a logger seeking revenge against the Prey Lang Community Network, a grassroots coalition of activists dedicated to protecting the sprawling forest for which it is named, of which she is a well-known member.
“Before it happened, my friend saw a man pointing a flashlight at my hammock…about 7 meters away,” Ms. Sopheak said.
The activist said she was unsure of the identity of her attacker, but suspected it was a logger from a group that had visited the network’s encampment in Kratie province on Saturday afternoon, seeking the return of some of their equipment that Ms. Sopheak’s cohorts had confiscated.
Raised in Kratie’s rural Sambor district, Ms. Sopheak said she had been aware of the slow depletion of woodland near her home from an early age.
“When I was growing up, they would always cut down all the trees without thinking about the consequences,” she said. “I don’t hate loggers, but I hate logging.”
After leaving school at the age of 15, Ms. Sopheak spent three years working in rice paddies with her parents before she was invited by the Prey Lang network to attend courses in indigenous and environmental rights.
In 2014, the network’s leadership allowed her to join their patrols, during which dozens of its members scour sections of the 650,000-hectare forest in an attempt to catch illegal loggers red-handed and confiscate their equipment.
Ms. Sopheak said the activists met illegal loggers almost every time they embarked on a mission, confiscating their equipment and burning illegally harvested timber.
“When we patrol and find loggers, we stop them and we take photos of them. We make them sign a contract saying that they will not come back and we keep it all as evidence in case they return a second time,” she said. “Some loggers agree and just move away, but some ignore us.”
“Sometimes, if we burn their timber, they say, ‘We will burn your house,’” she said. “We are scared when they are holding their guns.”
On Thursday, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that Prey Lang, which stretches across four provinces, would be made an officially protected area.
Ms. Sopheak said she was skeptical about the premier’s pledge.
“I don’t believe it because he hasn’t directly ordered officials to go there to guard the forest. Logging will continue,” she said.
But as long as it does, Ms. Sopheak said she would continue her patrols, undaunted by last week’s attack.
“I won’t stop,” she said. “I will keep going, but I will be more careful. I will now ensure I sleep in the middle of the group when we are in the forest.”