svay sar commune, Pursat province – Phal Sophoeun was a quiet, gentle fifth grader, who walked straight home from school every day to mind her infant nephew.
She was 14 and never strayed far from the village, said her sister Phal Sokhoeun, 27, who told how she looked after her younger sister and didn’t allow her to herd cows after school, like so many other girls in Krakor district’s Boeng Smuk village.
“I was very careful and still it happened,” Phal Sokhoeun said of the rape and murder of her little sister, whom she’d raised for the past 11 years after their mother died and father abandoned them.
The 14-year-old had been missing since Monday afternoon, along with her cousin Nai Vinn, 11, a second grader at the same school.
Friends and relatives started searching in the fields, thinking the two might have got lost on their way home. Nai Vinn’s father, Huot Nai, 37, traveled to two neighboring villages in a desperate search for the young girls.
On Tuesday afternoon, Phal Chantha, 19, the missing girl’s older brother, saw a spot of color on the forested mountain towering over the field where he was standing. He gathered a group of 10 men to investigate. About 5 km into the forest, they found the bloody corpses of the two girls hanging by rope from the same branch of a tree, about 2 meters from the ground.
The cousins had been brutally raped, viciously beaten and strangled to death. The 11-year-old had bruises all over her body, both legs were broken and her eyes had been gouged out. The 14-year-old had a broken leg, and her neck was broken in so many places that “her head could move in any direction,” her sister said in an interview Thursday.
The girls were cremated on Wednesday.
Police suspect more than one perpetrator was involved but have made no arrests and have no leads.
Three years ago, a next-door neighbor of the two slain girls, Thon Than, 20, left her house one morning to carry fertilizer to the family farm. She was later found raped, viciously beaten and strangled to death.
No arrest was ever made in that case.
On the way to the murdered girls’ neighboring homes, roads of red earth get smaller and smaller until only a narrow footpath through yards and fields leads to three houses. Here, each home has lost a daughter.
“I believe in the law. But if [the police] could not find out, I don’t have any idea what to do,” said Long Khun, 60, proudly displaying a framed portrait of the late Thon Than, the niece she raised after her parents’ death.
Though Thon Than was not found lashed up to a tree branch, the cases are brutal and similar enough to send a deep chill through Svay Sar commune.
Pursat provincial penal police chief Soeun Sopheak didn’t hold out much hope for an investigation into the slaying of the two children.
“It’s difficult to identify the suspects because the [victims’] house is very far from the police office and it’s isolated from the village. And when we asked the people, they seemed to know nothing about potential suspects,” Soeun Sopheak said Thursday.
Local police will, however, continue investigating the case, he added.
Many parents interviewed Thursday, including in the commune town 10 km from where the two girls were found, said they were afraid for their children and would not let them leave their homes, even for school.
In Boeng Smuk village, Un Tae, 50, has told his twin daughters, 20, not to go to the fields or tend the cows anymore.
He and his three sons have now taken on the women’s jobs so that his daughters can stay close to the safety of home.
“I might stay at home forever,” said Tay Savuth, one of the twins, who added that she was terrified.
Boeng Smuk, a village of 278 families, is usually peaceful, without any gangs, and everyone is either a friend or a relative, Phal Sokhoeun said. She couldn’t think of anyone who could have raped and murdered the girls.
Village chief, Kin Ngas, 62, said he is now taking a different view of his villagers.
“The crab that cuts the rice in the rice field is the crab in the rice field,” he said, recounting an old Khmer proverb that would suggest the killers of the girls were locals.
He’s advising that families with children keep their young ones as close to home as possible, and that women travel in groups of at least three and let their families know where they are going at all times.
Contacted Thursday to comment on the latest case of children being raped and murdered—crimes which have grown increasingly common in recent years—Minister of Women’s Affairs Ing Kantha Phavi said she wouldn’t speak over the phone to a journalist she doesn’t know.
“We have a policy [to prevent violence against women]. We’ve implemented it for five years already,” the minister said before hanging up.