koh thom district, Kandal province – The 4-year-old brother of a young rape suspect picked up a metal pole from under his stilt house. Holding it as though it were a rifle, he took aim through the rickety fence at a group of children playing, unaware of his presence, in the yard next door.
Shuddering under the backfire of imaginary bullets, the boy squinted and grinned as he pretended to mow down his neighbors—among them, the timid 6-year-old girl his 12-year-old brother is accused of raping.
Only weeks ago, the two families were on friendly terms. The 6-year-old girl and her alleged rapist often played together along with the other children of Chhoeur Khmao commune’s Chung Koh village.
But the March 12 rape allegation has since driven a wedge between the neighbors and has divided the loyalties of their fellow villagers.
It has also left both the young victim and suspect traumatized, their parents said.
Contributing to the hostility between the two families, the Kandal provincial court released the suspect on March 16, dropping all charges against him. Since he is under the age of 13, court officials decided they could not legally keep him detained, whether he committed the crime or not.
Instead, officials recommended a common, and controversial, means of dealing with rape cases: Monetary compensation, which the suspect’s family has yet to pay.
The boy’s release without trial has left some villagers doubting whether he raped the girl at all, while others fear the boy could re-offend.
Interviewed last week, the boy’s mother said he had gone to live temporarily with her relatives to avoid disapproving neighbors.
“Some villagers blame my son and say the rapist should be shot to death,” she said, adding that she, too, feels the searing gaze and heated whispers of fellow villagers.
“I also feel shy when I go to the market,” she said. “When I have rice, I don’t go out.”
She is uncertain what happened the day the girl was raped. As a single mother, whose husband left four years ago, she had been working as a day-laborer in the fields. On that day she left her children home alone.
“I don’t believe that my son did anything wrong,” she said. But she added: “I don’t know about this clearly.”
Commune police arrested her son the morning after the rape. They brought him to the district office, where he was detained for four days and three nights before the court finally released him.
Since then, the boy has refused to speak and is constantly frightened, his mother said. And though she has repeatedly asked him to come home, he refuses to return to their house—situated only meters away from the family of his accuser—and is staying with a relative.
“My son is scared to be arrested again,” his mother said. She added that she, too, is afraid of what may become of him, especially since she cannot pay the 4 million riel (about $1,000) demanded by the victim’s family for compensation. On the days she can find work in the fields, she said, she earns only 5,000 riel.
“Villagers say he’s a bad boy, a bad child,” she said. “I feel really scared about his safety, that he could be beaten and killed.”
Villagers like Ngan Phally, 49, sympathize with the boy.
Unlike the boy’s family, who have been living here since 1979, the victim’s family are newcomers, having only arrived in Chung Koh a little over four months ago, Ngan Phally said.
“If [the victim’s parents] talk to me, I talk to them,” she said. “But I don’t believe them.”
Ngan Phally added that other villagers are of the same mind, doubtful that a boy so young could actually rape a girl.
The victim’s mother said she doesn’t mind the skepticism expressed by fellow villagers.
“I don’t care about what the other villagers think,” she said. “The doctor told me my daughter was raped. I believe my doctor.”
The day of the rape, the girl had gone to play at her accused attacker’s house, while her mother and father were at work in the fields.
When they returned that evening, the girl told her mother that the boy had instructed her to remove her skirt and penetrated her with his penis.
That night, the girl could not urinate, her mother recalled. Worried, she brought her daughter to the community health center early the next morning. Doctors there referred the girl to the district health center, then the provincial hospital, where she was treated overnight for wounds to her vagina.
Since then, the girl has at times seemed withdrawn, her mother said. Wearing only a pair of dirty tartan shorts, the girl lay silently on her back, her stomach protruding, next to her mother.
“Her attitude is sometimes strange,” the mother said. “Maybe because she is so young, she doesn’t know what is going on.”
She added that her family is asking the suspect’s mother to pay $1,000 for the girl’s medical expenses and her damaged reputation.
“If she were older, we would ask for much more,” the mother said. “Normally for a lady, she would have a bad reputation for this kind of matter. But when [the girl] grows up, we worry: What about her feelings?”
Fellow villager Keang Saroeurn, 25, whose own relative was raped in Chang Koh four years ago at the age of 13, said she understands the turmoil the victim’s family is going through.
Though her relative’s attacker, an adult male from another village, was later arrested and imprisoned, it took a long time for the girl to recover.
“She used to feel scared to go out of the home alone…. Whenever she saw a man, she used to shout or use abusive words and cry,” Keang Saroeurn said of her relative.
Though she appears normal now, “her feelings are sometimes not so good,” Keang Saroeurn said. And now that her relative is no longer a virgin, she added, “I have no idea whether any man will marry her.”
Given the difficulties her own relative faced, Keang Saroeurn said it will not likely be easy for the village’s latest young rape victim to grow up next to her alleged attacker.
“It’s a terrible thing…because both are so young,” she said.
Villager Korn Samith, 26, said she believed the 12-year-old should not have been released.
“It’s a complex matter because the court said he cannot be jailed because he is so young. But it will affect the younger generation,” she said. Considering the suspect got away unpunished, other boys might feel rape is acceptable, she said.
As for the suspect, himself, Korn Samith asked, what kind of man will he turn out to be?
“If the boy comes back to this village again he will commit [rape] with another girl,” she said.