While the small, colourful village of Somkul village in Ratanakkiri province bustles with idle chatter as villagers tend to livestock and cook food on a rainy morning last week, one house remains deathly quiet.
Rocham Char, a 52-year-old man accused of practicing sorcery, sits uneasily in his modest home with his wife and some of his 29 relatives who have faced death threats for their alleged use of black magic in O’Yadav district’s Som Thom commune.
Although Rocham Char has been accused of being a sorcerer since 1984, his relatives – made up of five families – have been told in recent months that if they don’t leave the village they will be killed.
The remote 100-home community lies about 70 kilometres from the provincial centre of Banlung. Roughly 50 percent of the community practices the ethnic Jarai faith, while the others are Christians who gather at the village’s central church.
Speaking to reporters while sitting under a large wooden cross displayed on the wall of his home, the father-of-two said his family live in constant fear, struggle to sleep at night and refuse to venture out into the community because of the threat of violence.
“I am very worried about my safety, especially when these people get drunk and come to threaten my family,” he said, as a group of about a dozen villagers gather at his doorway. But despite the threats, he refuses to leave – emphasising the difficulty in starting a new life in an unfamiliar community.
“Even if they come to kill my whole family, I will not move from my village,” he said, adding that he is waiting for authorities and NGOs to help him to affirm his right to live in Somkul village.
“When people in the village get a fever they accuse me of doing it to them, but if I was a sorcerer and was making people die since 1984, a lot of people in this village would be dead already.”
He said that if he were to be killed, he hopes police find the murder weapon to track down his killers and bring justice for his family, who clearly support him.
Sreav Suon, his 45-year-old wife, said she has found no reason for villagers to believe he practices black magic.
“If he is a sorcerer he would teach me to eat human flesh, but he never has,” she said passionately to the villagers, while on the verge of tears.
Rocham Char, who has been accused of witchcraft, sits at his house in Ratanakkiri province last week. adam miller
Sreav Suon adds that while people have accused her husband of causing sickness, when she became sick and nearly died on two separate occasions no such accusations were made.
“If they accuse my family of sorcery please take us to be scanned at the modern hospital, and find the sorcery in our bodies,” she said.
Elderly members of the family are also concerned about the upsurge of anger in the village.
Chhal Pren, Rocham Char’s 80-year-old father-in-law, constantly worries about villagers trying to forcefully evict relatives who refuse to move.
“No one in my family knows sorcery,” he said, turning to face some of the villagers loitering outside of the home.
“Please stop accusing us, it is an injustice. We will not go to a new place because we are not sorcerers!”
The family, he said, is now dependent on the authorities for help and has vowed to barricade themselves inside their home if the situation deteriorates.
District authorities said they are taking the family’s concerns seriously, however some commune officials were uncertain of how to handle the case.
District Police Chief Ma Vichet said last week he had visited residents to inform them that death threats are illegal and they have no right to evict the families.
He said progress has been made, and many villagers have ceased to be aggressive to the family, yet he has drawn up a “blacklist” of locals who are adamant the ‘sorcerers’ should die. Unlike many in the village, he believes hygiene standards are more likely the cause of sickness.
“According to our research, they got sick because they live in poor sanitation, they drink water without boiling it and they eat with dirty hands,” he said.
If villagers refuse to listen to him he said he would station officers to surround the families’ homes.
Chhal Bean, the 49-year-old chief of Somkul village, said that he pities the five families and believed that they would face persecution wherever they go.
“I don’t know how to help because [the villagers] are ethnic people and they believe strongly in sorcery,” he said, adding that there are three tests to determine whether someone is a magician in ethnic Jarai culture.
Firstly, the accused must squeeze an egg between his or her hands – if it breaks easily the person is considered a sorcerer. Secondly, the
accused must hold their head underwater for as long as possible along with another villager. If the accused is the first to come up for air then they are guilty.
The third test is the dropping of molten lead into the palm. If the accused is burned they are deemed guilty.
Rocham Char claimed that he had carried out this task, which left his hand unscathed, though some villagers believe he wrapped his hand in a thick cloth beforehand.
As the stand-off continues, there is little the family can do but wait.
But they are not the first to be the target of black magic rumours.
Pen Bunna, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said that from 2003 to 2011 the organisation received six complaints over sorcery cases in the province.
Of those, two families decided to move their houses for safety reasons while three alleged sorcerers were killed in 2003.
“In this case, we will try to help the family to stay in the village and educate villagers to focus on health when they get sick instead of focusing on sorcery,” he said.
“We want them to forget about sorcery.”
However, that could prove to be difficult.
Across the village sits Kloeun Nhieu, a 25-year-old ethnic Jarai woman who has become ill on numerous occasions. She claims it is a direct result of Rocham Char cursing her because she refused to marry into his family.
Although she sought help from a health centre in the province for pain throughout her body, her condition didn’t improve. She ultimately sought out the help of a fortune teller – who warned her that Rocham Char had cursed her.
The fortune teller told her she would have to sacrifice a pig in the name of the sorcerer to recover from her illness. After the sacrifice, she claimed, her condition dramatically improved.
“Even thought he swears to villagers [that he isn’t a sorcerer] we don’t believe him,” she said, explaining that if the families refuse to leave the village then other residents will kill them.
“We cannot live with sorcery,” she said.