In Villages, Accusation of Sorcery Can Spell Death

kompong speu, Samraong Tong district – In the deserted, sun-seared village of Thmar Samlieng, where superstition has deep roots, an 83-year-old man—whose wife was beheaded in July after her neighbors accused her of being a sorcerer—stood before her isolated grave, veined with twisting vines.

“I don’t know why, but my neighbors were always accusing my wife of being a witch,” Un Pak said softly, his thin face deeply etched with wrinkles, as he looked toward the road snaking past nearly 20 abandoned plots with only fences and concrete foundations left behind. “She did not practice black magic, she was a good wo­man.”

Immediately after his wife’s burial, the old man’s neighbors moved to a new village about 200 meters away. None of his former neighbors—not even his own sister—will speak with him now or set foot in the old village.

Under the sway of ancient fears, allegations of sorcery are still common in rural Cambodian villages, especially those that have been hit hard by disease and death.

Uneducated villagers blame sorcerers, who are often outsiders to village society, for various misfortunes or for events they cannot ex­plain, such as epilepsy or a sudden rash of road accidents, ex­perts say.

Fabienne Luco, an anthropologist specializing in Khmer culture, said that sorcery accusations—ex­cluding those that are conveniently used to settle family or business feuds or those that are politically motivated, especially around election time—are about apportioning blame.

“Sometimes when there is sickness in the village or repeated problems with a family that they cannot explain, a person will be identified as the scapegoat,” Luco said. “The thinking goes: If this problematic person is taken care of, then peace will come. It’s kind of a sacrifice.”

Luco said that a person whose be­havior or personal history is a little different from that of other villagers can be perceived to be a danger to village society, and they run the greatest risk of being identified as a sorcerer. She said gender and age was not a factor.

About a month before the murder of Sam Sorn—who was originally from another district, and reportedly did not participate in pagoda ceremonies—fellow villagers began making increasingly feverish accusations that she was responsible for making their bellies swell up and causing a few re­cent deaths.

“Almost all the people in the village nearly died,” insisted villager Ngeth Phnon, 70, as she sat in the center of the newly founded Prey Rognieng village with about 15 wo­men and children, many of whom nodded in affirmation.

“There were many types of  sick­ness. My stomach would swell up then go down—it was very strange,” she said.

Several villagers said they hired a fortuneteller from Kompong Speu town to come to their former village to find out what the problem was.

When the medium said it was due to black magic, several villagers, such as Korm Yen, 40, said it was obvious which of their neighbors was to blame.

“[Som Sorn] was very experienced in black magic and never came to the pagoda,” said Korm Yen, a mother of three.

“She came from outside the district, so we were not close. She would come to see us when she needed food—and we knew we had to give it to her or else she would curse us and make us sick.”

Roughly three weeks before the killing, someone, whose identity was never confirmed by local po­lice, set fire to Un Pak and Sam Sorn’s hut while they were collecting firewood in the forest.

Days later, a strange rumor began spreading like wildfire through the small village: Sam Sorn had been seen devouring a live chicken, her face and clothes dripping with fresh blood.

The person identified as initiating that story, 17-year-old Kang Chanthan, claimed during an in­terview last week that he only saw Sam Sorn on her property plucking out a chicken’s feathers with her teeth. But the village chief confirmed that the boy asserted he saw Sam Sorn drenched in blood and consuming raw meat.

Three days before the killing of his wife of 11 years, Un Pak filed a complaint about the sorcery accusations with village chief Ya Pheorng. The chief said he spoke to villagers and told them not to accuse people of things they could not prove.

“I told them to stay calm. I said I was not sure whether or not [Sam Sorn] knew black magic, because there was never any legal proof,” Ya Pheorng said.

Finally, on the afternoon of July 4, Sam Sorn was hacked to death with a machete while she cooked in the couple’s secluded hut on the edge of the village.

Un Pak said he found his wife’s corpse splayed beneath the mat where she slept, her head connected to her neck by only a thin ribbon of flesh.

“After I saw her like that, I did not eat rice for days. I wanted to die to be with my wife,” said the frail elderly man, standing in the abandoned village where his charred hut is the only building left standing.

“I should have died first,” he said.

No one expressed any sorrow about his wife’s killing, he said. A stepson helped him arrange the funeral, and none of his former neighbors living across the road in the relocated village attended.

Police identified 38-year-old Koam Pai—Un Pak’s grandchild from an earlier marriage—as the killer. Court clerks confirmed last week that two other people, whose names they would not disclose, were initially arrested, but that criminal charges against them were dropped.

Police said the assassin was paid a total of 120,000 riel, roughly the equivalent of $30, by around a dozen villagers. Several, such as Ngeth Phnon, acknowledged last week that they had paid 10,000 riel for the killing. But they said the kiling was done for the safety of the village and that they had not commissioned it beforehand, only paying Koam Pai because he pressured them for cash after ridding the village of “evil.”

Hang Saroeun, Kompong Speu’s penal police chief, confirmed that roughly 12 village families hired the killer and that the earlier torching of the couple’s house was likely an intentional act.

When Hang Saroeun was asked why the families who he maintained commissioned the killing were not arrested, he said: “They were just questioned because there were too many of them.”

Villagers reported last week that life is good in Prey Rognieng, which is within shouting distance of their former village and their old banished neighbor, Un Pak.

“After her death, there have been no problems here. I think it’s safe,” said Kang Vanna, 45, the mother of the teenager who insisted he saw Sam Sorn devouring a live chicken.

“Yes, now I don’t feel scared anymore,” said the teenager, Kang Chanthan, breaking into a boyish grin. “It’s better now.”


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