koh thom district, Kandal province – When the crack of several AK-47 rounds sounded in rapid succession around 2 am one Sunday last month, neighbors barely took notice.
But four hours later, Chhean Neary, 25 and her husband Chhean Sreav, 31, were found lying dead in their hammock.
“I thought she was sleeping,” said Chhean Socheata, 16, the wife’s sister, who was the first to find the bodies. “But when I shook her wrist, she didn’t move.”
That’s when she noticed the blood dripping from a hole in her sister’s chest. “At first I thought it was an insect bite,” she said. Moments later she realized her sister was dead.
The double slayings, which took place in Kompong Kong commune on Nov 10 and remain unsolved, left two small children without parents: Chhean Zanita, a 3-year-old girl, and Chhean Vutanak, a 13-month-old boy.
The two children “don’t understand what happened,” said Chhean Neary’s 22-year-old sister, Chhean Amatta. “It’s not easy taking care of these two kids,” she said, especially Chhean Vutanak, who cried for his father for days, often picking up his uncle’s mobile phone to call his dad.
“We are very sorry to see that,” Chhean Amatta said. “We never thought they would become orphans.”
Despite her inquisitive eyes, Chhean Zanita, plodding across the room with a teddy bear in tow, is too young to fully comprehend the implications of what took place.
Chhean Amatta plans to care for the two children with her husband, but she frets about how and when she will ever tell her niece what happened that Sunday morning, which will surely be a jarring blow, whenever it comes.
“I will tell her someday,” Chhean Amatta said, leaving it at that. “I worry about the boy. I worry that he may try to get revenge one day,” she added, sitting on a blue plastic chair in the entrance of her storefront home.
In a green-and-black-striped shirt, Chhean Vutanak tottered around like any other kid his age, unaware of the hushed concerns being voiced around him.
The orphaned children are not completely without good fortune. With guardians running a profitable store and an extended family to provide care and support, they will not grow up in dire need.
Still, some family members seem emotionally scarred by the experience. While recounting her discovery of the bodies, Chhean Socheata, who otherwise would be the picture of a careless teenager in her Hello Kitty T-shirt, sat stiffly, wearing a blank stare.
“I can’t forget about it,” she said of the murder.
And while Chhean Amatta remains remarkably composed, perhaps simply because now she has her hands full with two small children, her husband, Heng Ratha, seems in a daze. “I feel like I’m in a bad dream and I will wake up soon,” he said, staring at the grey cement floor. “It was very cruel.”
In the days following the killings, police were stumped for a motive: there were no vendettas, no debt and no money was taken.
But commune police chief Lan Chhang said by telephone on Sunday that there had been new developments and that the killings may be related to an internal family conflict, although he declined to elaborate.
Commune councilors Sim Sarom and Huoy Chamroeun said that if the experience of the 19 other local children who became orphans in 2007 were any indicator, this horrific crime would have a major effect on the two children. They added that extended families often struggle to raise orphans, who tend toward anger, rebelliousness and other behavioral problems from their loss.
Still, the community’s orphans, despite going through emotional difficulties, have managed to stay afloat in society. “Our village is lucky because those orphans never caused any problems to other villagers, used drugs, assaulted anyone or used guns,” said Sim Sarom. “We will give them as much advice as we can.”