Community Struggles in Aftermath of Rape-Murder

KOAK SAMPOV VILLAGE, Prey Veng province – Hundreds of villagers gathered at the pagoda here on Monday to mark the seventh day since 10-year-old Vorn Srey Leu was raped and killed.

Students and teachers came from the local primary school, just across the dirt road, to say farewell to their former student and classmate. Farmers came in a show of support to the parents and grandmother of the young girl. Even the parents of the confessed killer joined the ceremony and donated $25 and 30 kg of rice to the parents of the dead girl, the most they could spare during the dry season.

Those who turned out for the ceremony, which was held only a few dozen meters from the bathroom where the 10-year-old was raped and strangled to death, wondered how a 17-year-old boy from a local family could have committed such a terrible act.

The girl’s parents were not at home when their daughter was killed at about 4 p.m. on February 18. Pov Channy, 32, and her husband, Nhem Ly, 33, received the news over the phone from family members.

About six years ago they decided that it was no longer possible to raise their children living off the 2 hectares of rice paddy their family owned in this remote part of Prey Veng province. So they moved to Phnom Penh, where the husband and wife could make up to $6 a day doing construction work.

For a few years, Vorn Srey Leu and her younger sister lived with their parents in a 3-by-3-meter apartment in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district. But when Ms. Channy had a son about three years ago, and had to stop working in order to take care of him, the financial strain of raising three kids in the city was untenable.

Ms. Channy’s mother, Seak Yorm, suggested in October that she could take care of Vorn Srey Leu in Prey Veng, and Ms. Channy agreed. Her other daughter was already living with her paternal grandparents, and this would allow Ms. Channy and Mr. Ly to save some money until the family could move back in together in Phnom Penh.

“I was worried about my daughter’s safety while she was living in the province,” Ms. Channy said on Tuesday, sitting in front of her brother’s house across the street from the pagoda where her daughter was killed. “But I didn’t think there would be a problem since she would be living with her grandmother in the pagoda.”

Ms. Channy still spoke to her young daughter regularly over the phone, and said they had recently decided that Vorn Srey Leu would move back in with them in Phnom Penh at the end of the school year.

Her grandmother, Ms. Yorm, 74, had been living in a wooden hut inside the Koak Sampov pagoda for nearly a decade, and thought it would be an ideal place for a young girl to spend a year or so of her life.

“I wanted her to study here because the school is so close and her uncles and aunts are all here and her mother is poor,” Ms. Yorm said, looking down at the dry, sandy earth in front of her son’s home as her eyes filled with tears. “But now I really regret it,” she said.

On February 18, Ms. Yorm woke from a nap and walked out into the grounds of the pagoda, where hours earlier Vorn Srey Leu had been playing with her 8-year-old nephew, Van Kosal, under a Banyan tree. But her granddaughter was nowhere to be seen.

Ms. Yorm walked to the market in front of the pagoda to ask the vendors if they had seen her. A man at one stall said he had sold her ice about an hour before, but wasn’t sure where she went. Ms. Yorm went to her son’s house and told him that she couldn’t find Vorn Srey Leu. Within the hour, dozens of neighbors had joined the search.

After three hours of combing the village for Vorn Srey Leu, an uncle found her body in the water storage tank of the pagoda’s public bathroom. Her head was submerged in the water with her legs laying limp over the edge of the concrete chamber.

Vorn Srey Leu’s rape and murder was far from an anomaly.

In the past two years in Cambodia, there have been 23 separate rape-murders of children recorded by local rights group Adhoc and in news reports. Of the roughly 320 rape cases recorded by Adhoc last year, 201 were committed against minors.

While police appear to be lending more resources toward prosecuting rape and rape-murder crimes in Cambodia—about 29 percent of rape complaints filed with the courts in 2011 led to the conviction of the alleged perpetrator, up from just 13 percent of complaints in 2010—women’s and children’s rights advocates say there is still very little public awareness around the crime of rape. There are no protests like those that gripped India recently following the gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student on a bus, who later died from her injuries.

After discovering Vorn Srey Leu’s body, police arrived on the scene within the hour, and determined that the young girl had been beaten over the head and strangled by her rapist. There was bruising around her neck.

Investigating the scene, deputy provincial police chief Seng Sopheak was told that Van Kosal, the girl’s 8-year-old nephew, was the last person to be seen with her. He sat down with the boy and asked him what he knew. But the boy refused to talk.

After two hours of sitting together over cans of fruit juice, Mr. Sopheak convinced the boy to tell him what had happened.

The outdoor area at the center of the pagoda was almost entirely empty that afternoon because most of the village was inside a prayer hall listening to monks preaching the Buddhist dharma. The only people around were Vorn Srey Leu, her nephew and a teenage boy who lived at the pagoda.

The 17-year-old told Vorn Srey Leu to go buy some ice, which she did. When she returned, he told her nephew to go buy some more, and he also obliged. But as he was walking away, he saw the teenager pulling Vorn Srey Leu toward the bathroom, and assumed they were trying to play a trick on him. After buying the ice, Van Kosal ran to the bathroom where the two had been heading minutes before. The door was locked, so he tried to look through a hole in the plastic door. The teenager heard him at the door, opened it and proceeded to hit the boy in the head with a stone, kick him in the ribs and told him not to speak to anyone about what he had seen.

Throughout the afternoon and evening, as people first tried to find Vorn Srey Leu and then figure out who had killed her, the teenager did not try to flee. In fact, he joined the search party, according to Nhem Savorn, Vorn Srey Leu’s uncle.

“He acted as if he was innocent. I really couldn’t believe that he did it,” Mr. Savorn said.

But when police questioned him after being tipped off by the nephew, the youth confessed to the crime, said Mr. Sopheak, the deputy provincial police chief.

Mr. Sopheak recounted that the teenager had said that he had watched a pornographic video on the mobile phone of a friend and had then decided to rape Vorn Srey Leu.

“He said he killed her because she knew him and might tell others in the village what he had done,” Mr. Sopheak said.

According to the teenager’s parents, he was a good son who had gone to study Buddhism at the pagoda, which was only a few hundred meters down a dirt road from their house.

The teenager’s mother, Dam Heap, 55, wept as she told of her disbelief at her son’s crime. “When I heard he was arrested, I was numb. I believe what the police say that my son confessed, but I really can’t believe that he did it,” she said.

Chhay Chheut, 29, the teenager’s teacher at Koak Sampov lower secondary school, said the boy had shown no violent behavior in the past.

“He was a good student and never hurt anyone. I was surprised to hear that he was suspected of rape,” Mr. Chheut said.

Others in this community had a more nuanced account of the teenager’s behavior. According to Kanh Chos, a monk living at the pagoda, the teenager had done little to acquaint himself with the monks or their practices at Wat Koak Sampov, and on more than one occasion had been asked to leave for bullying other children and breaking dishes in the dining hall.

“The boy didn’t come to study Buddhist principles. He came just to eat and play,” he said. Still, the teenager’s behavior was not markedly different from many of the teenage boys who were in and out of the pagoda, Kanh Chos admitted.

Koak Sampov village chief Em Chun, 56, said the teenager was not known for being violent, but he was known for his interest in pornography. The teenager recently went with his friends to a market in a neighboring district just to download pornographic videos to his friend’s phone, Mr. Chun said.

“I think if he hadn’t watched the video, he wouldn’t have raped the girl,” he said.

While pornography may encourage rapists, the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of rape is seen by women’s and children’s rights advocates as an equally important factor in the problem.

At the seven-day ceremony on Monday, Mr. Chun spoke to those who had assembled to bury Vorn Srey Leu’s body, telling them about the terrible impact of her murder. He pleaded with local youths to not do the same.

Mr. Sopheak, the deputy provincial police chief, said that police in the province had been making a concerted effort to stop the distribution of pornographic DVDs, but with the more recent spread of digital videos distributed online and between mobile phones, their efforts were becoming futile.

Instead, the provincial police department, along with the Ministry of Cults and Religion and the Ministry of Education, should turn its attention to educating students about morality, and the dangers of sexual violence. In classrooms, Mr. Sopheak said, he hopes that more honest discussions about sex will take place.

“If the students are taught what sex is, how it affects their life and how to prevent its unwanted consequences, than they may understand how to avoid doing bad things like rape,” he said.

But according to Mr. Chheut, the ninth grade teacher at Koak Sampov school, bringing the discussion of sex into the classroom conflicts with traditional Cambodian values.

“Khmer tradition prefers not to talk about sex with teenagers because they are shy. Perhaps if they are educated about sex, they will practice it because they are too young and can’t control their sexual desires,” he said.

Ms. Channy, the mother of Vorn Srey Leu, said she would like to see authorities make a point of speaking with young men about the laws around rape, and explain to them the consequence of living in prison.

Regarding the fate of the teenager who raped and killed her daughter, she said simply that she wants him to be sentenced according to the law.

“If possible, I hope he spends the rest of his life in prison,” she said

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