From inside a shanty built over a squalid pond on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, villagers Monday took turns lowering themselves into the liquid filth through a hole in the wall to search for the body of a baby who fell through the opening the night before.
The crude rental home of Suos Sophea, 35, and his wife Sim Thai Cochinchine, 36, in Meanchey district’s Stung Meanchey commune was something of a disaster response area Monday afternoon. Villagers young and old had come to search for 17-month-old Suos David, who disappeared from his mother’s sight shortly after 7 p.m. on Sunday.
“I was sitting on the floor watching television when I heard my daughter yell out, ‘Mom, mom, help!’” Ms. Cochinchine said.
The mother of six said she scrambled to the rickety corrugated iron wall, where a sheet had given way, and looked down into the black water, where her 10-year-old daughter had already jumped in to save her baby brother.
“I pulled my daughter up but we could not see my baby. So fast, he was gone.”
Ms. Cochinchine said by the time she had pulled her daughter back into their home, “more than 10 villagers had heard me scream and came to help.”
“They spent the whole night going in and out of the water to find my boy,” she said. “Nobody slept.”
“The commune chief came in the morning and appealed to all the villagers to help; the police, they said they didn’t have time.”
The village—known as the Red Moon community—remained in a state of panic through Monday afternoon, with locals still bobbing around in the fetid water, cutting paths through a thick layer of plastic wrappers, polystyrene packaging and abandoned flip-flops.
One of the searchers, Sum Thanh, 30, sliced four of his fingers open on a rusty sheet of tin.
Cleaning the wound with motorbike brake fluid, Mr. Thanh said he had answered a call to help from the village chief.
“It’s ugly down there,” he said. “The smell is disgusting and it is not safe—the water is full of viruses.”
“No one has money here, so we all have to help each other.”
Mr. Thanh had cut himself as he clambered out of the water to hear a report from the missing boy’s grandmother, who had just returned from a visit to the local fortune-teller.
“There is a ghost girl named Serei Saophoan,” Chan Sophon told the other villagers. “She was a 23-year-old karaoke worker from Prey Veng. She was killed by men and her body was thrown in this water. There was no ceremony.”
Ms. Sophon said that according to the fortune-teller, the ghost of the murdered woman wanted a baby, and that “she loved our baby very much, so she claimed him.”
After hearing Ms. Sophon’s report, another woman ran to a nearby market. She returned minutes later with perfume, lipstick and makeup to add to the offerings of bananas, sugarcane and incense that had been placed next to the hole through which Suos David fell.
Villagers also brought out a portrait of a baby girl and set it on fire.
“The ghost girl wants a baby but she was killed by men, so she wants a baby girl, not a baby boy,” explained Ms. Sophon. “We are asking the ghost: ‘Please, exchange our boy for this girl.’”
As the still-burning photograph was dropped into the water, Ms. Cochinchine said she had not given up hope of finding her son’s body.
“If 7 p.m. comes around and he is not found, I think the volunteers will need to rest,” she said.
“The fortune-teller guessed that my baby would be found at 9 a.m. [Tuesday]. I just hope he appears in the water and not the trash.”