stong district, Kompong Thom province – The nearly two weeks that Ear Phan spent as a hostage are over, but the fear is fresh and has driven her out of her home in Prasat Balang district.
She and her family know that the seven men who dragged her into the jungle at gunpoint are still lurking somewhere—in the jungle, a neighboring village or even the plot of land adjoining theirs.
“We are scared,” said Kom Kuy, Ear Phan’s husband, at the house of his brother-in-law. “The kidnappers are still there. People in the commune have seen them.”
While kidnapping and banditry has plagued southern Kompong Thom, Prasat Balang district has remained relatively safe, district Police Chief Sea Souen said. A man kidnapped in the district in 2001 was released unharmed after paying a $1,000 ransom. Police killed one of the kidnappers and arrested three. Four suspects escaped.
The Sept 28 kidnapping of Ear Phan and her older sister, Ear Soup, was the first case of its kind in the district in two years.
Brandishing five AK-47s, the men grabbed the sisters while the two were feeding the family’s pigs. They chained and led them into the forest covering Phnom Benh, a low mountain near the Siem Reap province border, fending off district and military police who were in pursuit.
RCAF Officer Dou Douet, 38, was killed Sept 30 in a shootout with the kidnappers.
The next day, the kidnappers released Ear Soup to relay demands to her family. They requested 50 kg of rice, three ducks and a carton of cigarettes. When an elder from Ear Phan’s village delivered the goods by oxcart, they refused to free Ear Phan and upped the ransom to $15,000.
On Oct 8, they apparently gave up on the payment and released her, allowing her to walk the 20 km back to her village.
Ear Phan, a 38-year-old mother of four, says she was not harmed in captivity. The kidnappers fed her rice with salt and stream water—all that they had. The group was always on the move, toting their meager supplies away from pursuing police and deeper into the mountain jungle.
She was kept fettered only by their threat to shoot and kill if she attempted escape.
“All I was thinking was that they would kill me,” Ear Phan said.
Kom Kuy, 45, says he borrowed ransom money from friends and family in the meantime, knowing that he would have to sell his livestock—and livelihood—to pay his debts.
He said he hoped that the kidnappers would accept the roughly $1,250 he was able to muster, and sent it to their camp with a village elder. Ear Phan was freed before the elder could find the group of bandits.
As the kidnappers had demanded through Ear Soup, Kom Kuy asked police not to interfere for fear that the kidnappers would torture his wife. In spite of his request, 20 police and 15 RCAF soldiers staked out the base of the mountain, listening in on the kidnappers’ walkie-talkie frequency.
But after Ear Phan’s release, the suspects escaped and no arrests were made.
Ear Phan said she did not recognize her captors, who wore military fatigues. Sea Souen suspects that they are former Khmer Rouge fighters who hid weapons in the jungle before defecting to the government.
The bandits could be anywhere now, he said, but it is most likely that they are nearby.
“After a kidnapping, a group normally splits up, and they change into the disguise of a farmer or firewood gatherer,” Sea Souen said.
“Whenever the police do not destroy the group, the kidnapping continues…. We cannot ensure that there will not be more kidnappings,” he said.