In ‘Rebel’ Village, Fond Memories of a Slain Girl

BROMA VILLAGE, Kratie Province – In a barren field dotted with the odd corn shoot, the grave of Heng Chantha lies beneath a small, metal roof.

The 14-year-old girl, the seventh of 10 children born to a family of rice and cassava farmers, was shot dead by security forces who raided her village on May 16, 2012—one year ago today.

The government claims it had to dislodge an armed and dangerous band of rebels bent on severing the remote village from state control. Human rights groups, and some of the villagers, say they were merely trying to protect their farms from a rubber plantation. Hundreds were evicted. A few were arrested, and independent radio station owner Mam Sonando, who had never visited the area, was convicted of encouraging a secessionist movement.

But in all the drama that unfolded that day, Heng Chantha was the only casualty.

Authorities quickly dismissed her death as an unfortunate accident and ignored calls from rights groups to investigate the shooting. None of the soldiers involved in the raid were ever identified as the killer and no one has been prosecuted for the young girl’s death.

“It is not fair; they did not find justice for [her],” said a relative of Heng Chantha, who spoke on condition of anonymity from a home across the street from where the young girl died.

It was that same fear that finally drove Heng Chantha’s parents to sell their 2-plus hectare farm in Broma and move the family to Siem Reap about two weeks ago.

“When [Heng Chantha’s mother] was interviewed by the media, the authorities came to threaten her, that’s why she left,” said a female relative of the family, who still lives in Broma and would on­ly speak on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

“The authorities, I don’t know who, came and told her to stop talking to foreigners…. [Heng Chantha’s mother] said that they told her that if foreigners came, don’t give them an interview.”

Even now, a year after the raid, the relative kept a wary watch on the rutted dirt road running past her house for any sign of those same authorities.

Soldiers no longer block the roads running in and out of Broma village, as they did for weeks after the raid, but they have remained a constant presence. A new garrison keeps a watchful eye on things from a few hundred meters off the main road through town.

Pretty, dark skinned and tall for her age, Heng Chantha was a quiet girl, the woman said. She took lessons at a local pagoda when she was not helping her family with the farm work and showed a knack for numbers.

“She was cleverer than her brothers and sisters,” she said. “She was good at math; she could calculate numbers very fast.”

She also loved her hair.

“When her mother asked to cut it, she refused.”

“She used to tell us that when she grew up, she would earn money to feed the family and so that her parents wouldn’t have to work hard,” she said.

Details vary, but by all accounts, Hang Chantha was trying to hide from the soldiers moving in on her house when they shot her.

The relative said that at the time of the shooting she was tending another family’s farm about an eight-hour drive from where the security forces entered the village. But according to the girl’s mother, she said, Heng Chantha was shot twice.

The woman squatted, like Heng Chantha had done when the soldiers came, and showed where the bullets had entered the young girl. She pointed to the outside of her left thigh, then drove her fingers into the left side of her torso just above the hip.

Heng Chantha died on the way to the district clinic.

Her grave now lies alone on the land where the family used to farm, about 50 meters from where she was shot.

Heng Chantha loved flowers, too, the woman said. While walking home she would often pick some and put them in her hair. So before she left, the woman said, her mother made sure to plant a fistful of white petals by the head of her grave.

Kong Kea, a next-door neighbor, said he saw Heng Chantha often but they rarely spoke.

“She was modest and didn’t speak much. She was a quiet girl,” he recalled, standing outside the family’s former home.

Mr. Kea said that he was sitting outside his own house, about 50 meters from Heng Chantha’s, drinking wine with friends the day the soldiers raided the village.

“They came from every direction,” he said, at least 100 of them from across the fields spreading west from the main road, more still from the other side. “No po­lice, only soldiers.”

From where he was standing, he said, he could also see Heng Chantha next door, sitting on a raised platform jutting out from the side of the house and ex­posed on three sides.

“At first, Chantha was sitting in the house watching TV. When she saw the soldiers surrounding the house, she tried to hide beside the column,” he said, staring at a thick wooden beam holding up one corner of the thatched roof.

But the spot was exposed to the advancing soldiers. When they opened fire on a group of villagers near the house who had armed themselves with knives and axes, he said, it proved little protection.

“She was shot, and I saw her crawl onto the floor,” Mr. Kea said. “Then her father took her to the district referral hospital, but she was already dead by the time they arrived.

“I feel sorry for her,” he said after a long pause, staring at the ground between his feet.

At the garrison, a concrete building on the edge of the forest surrounding Broma, all was quiet.

An armed soldier standing guard in the drizzling rain behind a hastily hand-painted “Do not enter” sign said his commanding officer, Colonel Srey Yana, was away and declined to give his name.

The soldier said there were 33 soldiers assigned to the provincial government now stationed at the garrison and that they had no plans to leave.

Stepping into an empty guardhouse, he hung his rifle on a knot in the wooden beam running through the middle of the room and peered out at the rain.

He had been here almost a year, slightly after the raid took place.

“I don’t know what the mission for Broma is,” he said. “I don’t wonder because I just implement the orders of my commanders.”

His commander, Col. Yana, referred questions to provincial governor Sar Chamrong.

“We put the military base in Broma to provide security for the villagers,” he said when contacted yesterday. “This area is not safe, and there are robberies, be­cause it is remote.”

But the villagers appeared more worried about the soldiers than their security.

Heng Chantha’s relative, the woman who watched the road so warily for passing soldiers on Tuesday, was more worried still yesterday. She said a local soldier had visited both her and Mr. Kea later that day to ask about the visit from reporters.

“The soldier came by my house,” she said, this time through a half opened door. “He said: ‘Next time don’t talk with journalists.’”

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