The women of Saleav village burst into hysterical, indignant laughter at the suggestion that they eat human flesh or uncooked meat, as they nurture their young – children condemned to grow up as exiles.
Tucked away in a remote area of Ratanakkiri’s Bakeo district, for more than two and a half decades, accused sorcerers have been banished to this barren outpost by various indigenous minority groups whose belief in the occult still thrives.
“I am so angry when they said that my village is a sorcerer village. I am not eating human, blood or uncooked meat; I am eating food just like other people do,” 17-year-old Ramas Voeun says, holding her baby in a krama.
Alternating between amusement and anger, the young ethnic Jarai mother says preposterous accusations were levelled against her family by the former neighbours who expelled them from Nhang village in Andong Meas distict, such as the assertion that they ate their own children.
“I would like to ask to everyone to stop saying that my village is a sorcerer village, because some people who are sorcerers have already been killed,” she says.
Brutal killings, including a case in which an alleged sorcerer was hacked to death by axe-wielding villagers, are not uncommon in Cambodia and have led authorities to take unusual actions in Ratanakkiri.
Some 20 families have been forced to relocate to Saleav village, and though many of them believe in black magic, they say they have been falsely accused and do not want their children to grow up with the stigma of coming from the sorcerer village.
About five years ago, 44-year-old Ra Chorm Veuch fled nearby Khoun village, fearing for her life after some villagers got sick then claimed she had subsequently appeared in their dreams. Her fate was sealed with the accusation that she had “red eyes”.
Now when she leaves Saleav village to go somewhere such as the market in the provincial capital of Banlung, her interactions with others are inevitably abrubt.
“When I ask something from people who live near the market, they always give it to me, because they’re afraid that if they did not give to me and I am angry, I will perform magic on them,” she says.
Nearby residents confirm there is a strong suspicion of those living in Saleav – and it’s not a prejudice confined to the older population.
Fourteen-year-old Sok Tim says he did not believe in sorcery until he went to visit his exiled neighbours and contracted diarrhoea.
“Other people said that maybe a sorcerer did it to me, and I had to buy a chicken to pray for the sorcerer, and when I did it in the evening, the next day when I woke up, I was better,” he said.
Others warn if you aggravate the sorcerers in Saleav village, you will find yourself vomiting until you die.
Jan Ovesen, an associate professor at Uppsala University in Sweden, has been completing a research project on poverty, sorcery and social capital in Cambodia with cultural anthropologist Ing-Britt Trankell since 2008.
He says sorcery needs to be understood not as a natural fact of life but a symbolic practice triggered by social contexts.
“Anthropologists have long recognised that sorcery accusations, worldwide, are basically a mechanism for social exclusion, triggered by envy, jealousy, fear, revenge or political power aspirations, or some combination of these,” he says.
The fact that beliefs that centre on practices such as casting spells, invoking spirits, chanting mantras, fashioning amulets and writing magic signs are found around the world makes them no more credible but attests to their deep-seated nature in human psychology, he says.
Ma Vichet, police chief of Ratanakkiri’s O’Yadav district, says his department’s research has revealed that most common source of accusation – sickness – comes from poor sanitation, drinking water that had not boiled and people not washing their hands.
But he still challenged villages to deploy their own traditional test – a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” ritual reminiscent of medieval European witch hunts in which the accuser and accused must dip their finger in molten lead and sustain no burns to prove innocence.
“But they could not do, so recently, there have not been as many cases as there were in the past,” he said, adding that no one particularly wants to get their fingers burned.
Another test they employ gives the accused a fighting chance – it tasks the alleged sorcerer to pinch the tips of an egg as hard as they can, and if it breaks, a feat of strength generally accepted to be beyond the limits of human strength, they will be found guilty.
Ramas Khvan, who was forced to move to Saleav village in 1996, said he passed both these test and another one in which the first person to run out of breath with their head under water was deemed guilty.
But he said it did not matter, because villages decided he had simply invoked magic to cheat.
“They still didn’t believe, so I had to ask the commune chief to live in that place that they opened for sorcerers,” he said.
He had good reason to move.
In 2001, three family members in Ratanakkiri, including a 7-year-old girl, were shackled and then drowned after being accused of sorcery, Pen Bonnar, provincial co-ordinator of the rights group Adhoc, says.
“What they did that time was very cruel, and the two people who were arrested by the court were only sentenced to six months,” he says.
His organisation has received 10 complaints since 2003 from villagers who received death threats after being accused of sorcery in Ratanakkiri, he adds.
The threats and violence are not just confined to the far northeast.
Other grizzly cases have included the fatal triple-stabbing of a man known only as Len in Kampong Thom province in 2001; the 2011 murder of Sieng Soeun, whose throat was slit in Kampong Speu province; and the hacking death of Mul Sophal, who was descended upon by axe-wielding villagers in the same province.
There are many more cases, and while belief in black magic is strongest among the heavily animistic indigenous ethnic minorities in Cambodia, the fear of ghosts and sorcerers has also strongly permeated into mainstream Buddhist culture.
Yet while Theravada Buddhism has developed as a hybridized, polytheistic religion incorporating Hindu gods and animistic beliefs, notions of black magic and sorcery have not gone unchallenged.
Ancient Cambodian fables from a collection known as the Gatiloke that were spread for centuries only by word of mouth, employ narratives in which magic is used to trick people out of their possessions or discriminate against them.
In The Story of Bhikkhu Sok, an ethnic Phnong villager travels down from the mountains to Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri province during a great famine to try and find food amongst the lowland strangers. When he returns, new cooking skills he has learned raise the suspicions of villagers, who later hack him and all but one of his family members to death with razors after a neighbour falls ill and they believe it is because the returnee was practising black magic.
The child who escapes eventually makes it to Kratie province, where he is adopted and successfully becomes a monk – a narrative that undermines both the Phnong belief in sorcery and the prejudices of lowland Khmers to indigenous minorities.
In Ratanakkiri, the occult beliefs are also under attack from another religious source, Christian proselytising, which has come to the rescue of 51-year-old Rocham Char, an accused sorcerer in O’Yadav district Somkul village who was threatened with murder and exile last year.
The now mostly Christian villagers say they have abandoned their suspicions of him and are happy for him to stay, although his accuser, Kloeun Nhieu, still maintains he is a black magic practitioner.
Back in Saleav village, 24-year-old Lam Ba Kamphoeun maintains a strong belief in the power of black magic but says the craft is inherited through lines of lineage that do not extend beyond a few old people in the community.
He says it is unfair that young people there are discriminated against, despite the fact that they could not become sorcerers even if they wanted to.
“For us, as the young generation, we do not follow the sorcerer’s anymore. We don’t want to be sorcerers,” he says.