o’yadaw district, Ratanakkiri province – Eighteen years ago, a 10-year-old Phnong ethnic minority girl named Rocham Phoeung disappeared into the jungle while herding cattle. She vanished along with her 6-year-old sister Rocham Boeung, and despite a police search at the time, her village of Ta Kuk Phnong in Som Thom commune was left without a clue to their whereabouts.
The discovery by loggers Saturday of a silent, naked woman, crawling on all fours and attempting to steal rice from their sawmill on the edges of the jungle near O’Yadaw village, has locals convinced that Rocham Phoeung has returned.
The woman was not alone when she was discovered. Villagers said Tuesday that she was accompanied by a man who was also naked, with long, unkempt hair.
“[He] had a long sword, and villagers could not capture him,” said Rocham Chanthy, the 18-year-old younger sister of the two vanished girls.
“He had tattoos and made his eyes very wide, so the villagers were very afraid,” she said.
The man slipped back into the jungle, but sawmill workers chased the woman on foot for a short distance then surrounded her, Rocham Chanthy said.
The workers brought the woman to O’Yadaw district town. As word spread of the “wild man” and his companion, villagers gathered and Sar Yo, the 45-year-old father of the vanished girls and the Som Thom commune police chief, said he recognized the young woman as his long-lost daughter.
Sar Yo has moved the woman in with his family, who now live in O’Yadaw town. The family has clothed the woman and is now watching over and feeding her.
“This is my daughter, I am sure of it,” said Sar Yo’s wife Rocham Soy, 41.
The woman appears traumatized and is not speaking, so she cannot confirm whether the family’s assumptions are correct. She does, however, bear a strong resemblance to Rocham Soy.
“I believe she is the lost daughter,” O’Yadaw district governor Heng Bunphann said.
Family members say they want the woman to attend school and hope that a blood test will confirm that she is their relative.
“She is afraid of everything,” said 22-year-old Rocham Ly, who believes he has located his long-lost sister.
Exactly where the woman has been and what her life has entailed before being captured on Saturday remains a mystery. But her left wrist may hold a sinister indication: a thick scar is evident on the skin, suggesting that she may have been bound at some time.
If the woman really is Rocham Phoeung, police are uncertain what could have befallen her sister.
Provincial police will not actively hunt for the man seen with the woman, and are not jumping to conclusions about what their relationship might have been, deputy provincial police chief Hor Ang said Wednesday.
But police have told villagers to report any future sightings of the man, he said.
“We are not sure whether he was a kidnapper,” Hor Ang said.
Police and villagers say they had never seen the man before and have no idea who he might be.
This is not the first time that mysterious figures have emerged from the jungles of Ratanakkiri in recent years.
In November 2004, 34 hill tribe members emerged from the dense forest of Virachey National Park, where they had fled a quarter of a century before.
The four families had belonged to the Khmer Rouge and had fled following the regime’s fall in 1979. For 25 years they had lived in the jungle in total isolation, limiting their speech for fear of detection, and moving at the sight of an unfamiliar footprint or a freshly cut tree.
In O’Yadaw, Phnong minority members believe the woman’s arrival on Saturday was supernatural, district police chief Mao San said.
“They are praying that the jungle spirit is finished with the girl and will allow her to stay here,” he said. “They believe that the girl has finished paying for her sins in the jungle, and that the jungle spirit has abandoned her, allowing her to come back to the village.”
Missing children were common in Ratanakkiri’s not-too-distant past, when wild animals were more common, he added, and police are also watching out for the “wild man.”
“We are not sure if the other daughter has died or not, maybe she has still survived like this woman,” he added.
Some local police officers playing cards outside the house where the woman is being kept for seven days, according to Phnong custom, had different ideas. They said they wanted to put the woman in a cage and charge onlookers $0.12 each to see her.
Hing Sakunthea, director of Ratanakkiri referral hospital in Banlung town, said the woman should be sent to the district referral hospital, and that if its staff are unable to treat her, he will send an ambulance to pick her up.
Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator of local rights group Adhoc, said he would contact Adhoc’s central office in Phnom Penh to help get psychological treatment for the woman.
“In the meantime, authorities should take her to the hospital,” he added.