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Friday, January 19, 2007

Cambodia 'Jungle Woman' yields no clues



OYADAO, Cambodia -- A woman who emerged from the jungles of Cambodia a week ago, burbling, grunting and walking bent over, is still giving up none of her secrets, even to the family that has taken her in as their presumed long-lost daughter.

Dubbed a "jungle woman" by residents of this remote district in the northeastern province of Rattanakiri, she is claimed by a local family to be 27-year-old Rochom P'ngien, who went missing at the age of eight when herding buffalo in 1988.

But unable to speak any words the villagers can understand, the woman cannot solve any of the mystery that surrounds her disappearance for nearly two decades.

Villagers expressed skepticism Friday that the woman could survive on her own in the jungle and said she was apparently found with her hair trimmed short.

"If she was in the jungle for 19 years, why was her hair short?" said Cheat Ki, a shopkeeper in the village. "It should have been long unless someone cut the hair for her in the jungle."

Many questions remain about the circumstances of her disappearance and what happened to her, said Mao San, police chief of Oyadao district. Officials want to take DNA samples from the parents and the woman to see if they match, and the parents have agreed, he said.

She was captured, naked, on Jan. 13 after a villager caught her taking food from a lunch box he left at a site near his farm, said local police.

Village policeman Sal Lou described his first glimpse of the woman: "She was naked and walking in a bending-forward position like a monkey, exactly like a monkey. She was bare-bones skinny." Her eyes were red like a tiger's, he said, and he felt fear.

But he checked her right arm. There he found a scar, just as his daughter had from an accident with a knife before she disappeared.

0"She looked terrible, but despite all of that, she is my child," he said. Objective evidence for the relationship, beyond a certain physical resemblance, is thin. But Sal Lou is not the only family member claiming Rochom P'ngien has returned at last.

Rochom Khamphi, 25, said that the moment she arrived at their house with Sal Lou he went to grab her right arm to check for the scar.

"I saw the scar right away and I knew that she is my sister," he said Friday. "Then tears just rolled down from my eyes. That's the proof. I remember it very clearly -- I'm not making it up, because I was the one who caused the injury."

Despite be taken into Sal Lou's extended family, the woman's heart may remain in the jungle. On Thursday she took off her clothes and acted as if she was about to go back into the wild, Sal Lou said.

Restraining her, the family took her to a nearby Buddhist pagoda for a monk to give her a holy water blessing to expel any evil spirits that may have possessed her, he said.

For members of the Pnong minority - who normally are not members of any organized religion, but instead are animists who revere nature - the move was unusual.

"We worship no religion but we took the advice of some elderly Khmer (ethnic Cambodian) people to have the holy water blessing done to chase the evils souls from her body," said Sal Lou, as his presumed daughter sat next to him, motionless as a stone.

She spends her days sitting or lying on the floor, sleeping or staring glassy-eyed at the scores of visitors who come to gawk at her in the dirty, ramshackle house she now shares with 12 other people.

The element of wildness is evident as well to a neighbor, Cheat Ki, and it frightens her.
"I was so scared, scared of evil spirits that might have come with her," she said. "At night before we went to sleep, after seeing her, I told my children to lock the door for fear that some evil might come and strangle us.
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