deadly skies

Boeng chumreak village, Kompong Speu province – Khoem Sary was crouching in her field, planting rice, when the world around her flashed white. Pain ripped across her back. Her hearing went dead. When she looked up, she saw three sugar palm trees on fire.

Khoem Sary had just been struck by lightning.

“I was shaking with fear,” she said.

Soon, though, her hearing returned. The burn and bruise on her back slowly healed.

“It’s not my time to die,” she said last week, laughing underneath her stilted house in Kong Pisei district. But for 77 other Cambodians this year, lightning meant death—a toll that is already far higher than last year’s 45 lightning fatalities.

Where Khoem Sary lives in Kompong Speu province, the loss has been especially great: since January, lightning has killed four people in Kong Pisei district alone.

“It’s so very fierce this year,” said Sdok commune police chief Touch Phearith, sitting in the palm-leaf shack that serves as the commune’s police station. “It makes the villagers afraid to grow rice when the clouds go dark,” he said.

Kong Pisei is a poor district with a preponderance of shrines and pagodas, many of them clustered at the base of the jagged Srah Srang hills. To ward off ghosts, villagers tie scarecrows to their fences. The district’s rice farmers have been haunted twice this year. First there was drought. But when the rains finally came they brought a new threat: death from above.

In Sdok commune, in the village of Prey Cha, lightning struck another Kong Pisei villager during the very same storm in which Khoem Sary was hit.

Pang Nop, 14, was bicycling home from a visit to his grandparents’ house. He stopped to pick up some stones, the perfect size for the slingshot he used to kill birds.

The sky flashed. Several other villagers were nearby, but only Pang Nop fell down, his arms open, his face turned up to the sky.

“The old people said a white cloth might make him recover,” his mother, Chea Sok Yeoung, said. But the lightning bolt had broken Pang Nop’s neck. He was already dead. His uncle carried his body home.

Pang Nop’s sister, Pang Srey Lak, 18, is now an only child. “I feel alone,” she said. “I had only one little brother, and now he’s dead.”

“His life cannot compare with other things,” Chea Sok Yeoung said, as neighbors and relatives crowded around her. “We want to know how to protect ourselves from lightning, but we don’t know who will tell us.”

Good advice is hard to come by in Kong Pisei. Last year, the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology printed 8,000 copies of a glossy lightning safety pamphlet, but only has the resources to distribute them once a year, at the Royal Plowing Festival in Phnom Penh, when farmers come to the capital to display their goods.

In Cambodia, reliable storm data is also scarce.

Long Saravuth, director of the ministry’s department of meteorology, said that Cambodia has 21 synoptic weather observation stations scattered throughout the provinces. But the observation books produced by these stations, written in longhand, are seldom collated and analyzed. “We don’t have good records,” he admitted. “It’s a problem.”

The information vacuum is too often filled with superstition.

In Kong Pisei, many villagers described the same traditional cure for lightning strikes: drape the victim with a white cloth and stand back. Near the villages where Khoem Sary and Pang Nop were struck, at the Buddha Khosadecha Phnom Srang pagoda, Veng Vunthy interrupted his work at a sewing machine to offer another remedy. “Put the victim in his bed and then light a fire under the bed,” the monk advised.

On the whole, though, the villagers of Kong Pisei don’t seem especially superstitious about lightning. They called it a natural disaster, not an act of god, ghosts, or curses. They said they know that they shouldn’t stand under trees or talk on hand phones during thunderstorms. They also know they shouldn’t stand in open fields when the sky lights up, but it’s not as though they have a choice.

“I’m afraid when I grow rice, but I can’t stop,” said Pang Srey Lak, Pang Nop’s sister.

“We’re farmers. If we don’t grow rice in the monsoon season, when can we grow it?”

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