As science and superstition vie to explain the mystery of the sad-eyed woman captured
in Ratanakkiri's jungle, a psychologist has called for an end to the overwhelming
The young woman captured in the jungle of O'Yadau district in Ratanakkiri province, near the border with Vietnam. Village policeman Sal Lou has claimed her as his daughter Rochom P'nhieng, missing for 18 years since the age of nine.
The naked, emaciated waif captured stealing food on January 13 by foresters from
Phsom village in O'Yadao district is claimed to be Rochom P'nhieng, a member of the
Phnong tribe who vanished in 1989 when she was nine years old.
But although some villagers are convinced the wild woman found with matted hair and
suspicious scars is P'nhieng, others have questioned how a lone child could survive
18 years into adulthood in the deep jungle.
Now, a Spanish psychologist has arrived hoping to find some answers by psychological
evaluation. Hector Rifa, of Psychology Without Borders, has said tests are needed
to deduce P'nhieng's identity and has asked that she be left alone.
Popular theories - about her jungle life, her monkey-like mannerisms and mental state
- may owe more to spiritual beliefs than scientific fact.
Locals familiar with Ratanakkiri's treacherous terrain are searching to explain how
a child could have survived in the jungle for so long.
"People have gone missing in the jungle before, but we usually find them after
a few days," said district police chief Mao Sann. "But in 2001, a villager
got lost in the jungle and we found only a skeleton a couple of months later. I am
still wondering how she could have survived for 18 years."
Sal Lou, the local policeman who has claimed the woman as his long-lost daughter,
has found the answers to her survival in tribal religion.
"I think the spirits of the jungle always protected my daughter," he said.
"That is how she has lived in the jungle for so long."
Sann is wondering whether the captured woman is truly Rochom P'nhieng.
"In the jungle, if a person doesn't have water or food then they would die in
two or three days," he said. "[Sal Lou] claims she is his daughter, but
I want to check DNA samples to get the truth."
For Sal Lou and others in the community, DNA tests can only confirm, not reveal,
the girl's true identity. A scar on her shoulder and a resemblance to Lou's other
daughters is proof enough for the hopeful family.
"Her face looked like one of Mr Lou's daughters," said Romas Koav, 66,
of Ten Ngor village. "I knew that one of his daughters had gone missing years
ago, so that was why I thought that it was his daughter."
NGO officials and medical experts say the girl appears to be psychologically damaged.
Painfully shy, she glares mournfully and is subject to sporadic fits of incomprehensible
Explanations and remedies for her mental state also divide along spiritual and scientific
"Although she doesn't talk to us, sometimes she laughs, smiles and looks outside
and talks in a language none of us understand," Lou said. "According to
my beliefs, she is talking to the jungle spirits. I think they are following her.
They have come to see she is ok. They visit her in our house and that is why she
talks and laughs."
Her new-found father, Lou, has been performing sacrificial rites.
"I sacrificed five pigs and a big jar of wine to pray that the jungle spirits
release my daughter," he said. "She is now in my house and I want them
to stop coming to visit her; I want them to leave her so she can live happily with
But so far, sacrifice has failed to shake P'nhieng from her silence and Lou is open
to more conventional approaches.
"I am very concerned about her future as I worry she might stay mute for ever,"
he said. "Maybe the hospital could treat her and help her get back to normal."
Hing Phan Sakunthea, director of Ratanakkiri provincial referral hospital, said the
strain of society and scrutiny have taken their toll.
"We have no idea about the state of her [physical and mental] health,"
he said on January 22. "I wanted to take her to the hospital to check for vitamin
and nutrient deficiencies [but we are worried about causing further] mental strain."
P'nhieng's appearance and physical mannerisms indicate that she has spent a considerable
period living outside of society, Koav said.
"I had to test her to see if she was really a human," he said. "I
gave her rice which she crouched down to eat like a monkey. One hand would scoop
up some rice, then with her other hand she would pick rice grain by grain from her
handful until she had finished it."
Some suspect that P'nhieng was not alone. Although Koav saw only P'nhieng in the
jungle, he said his sister recently reported seeing a strange man nearby.
"One of my sisters told me that when she was in the jungle cutting wood she
saw another, male, wild stranger," he said. "This man has long hair and
a dragon tattoo on his back and a long beard. When she saw him he looked at her,
moved his hands to cover his [genitals], and ran away into the jungle."
It is impossible to confirm such rumors, said police chief Sann.
"People who went to the jungle to cut wood have said to me that they have seen
maybe four or five different wild strangers," he said. "But I have never
seen them with my own eyes."
It will take medical tests to learn whether P'nhieng was isolated or with others.
She had a deep scar circling her left wrist.
"I cannot say whether she got lost, whether she was caught by somebody, or was
caught in a hunter's trap," he said. "I will investigate to find the truth.
I will go to the place where she first went missing and try to get more information."
For P'nhieng, the future is as unclear as the past.
"I am very concerned," Lou said. "I worry she might never go back
to normal. While she is at home now, she doesn't like loud noises or strange people.
She gets scared and she tries to take off her clothes and run away back to the jungle."