The corpse of 28-year-old Nhoek Prea has been left rotting at the scene of his brutal murder for almost a month now.
His grieving mother and pregnant wife believe that if they attempt to recover the body, they will meet the same bloody fate.
Despite having no savings, they are preparing to abandon all of their earthly possessions – the family home, motorbikes, clothing, cooking utensils – in a desperate effort to avoid what they believe is a curse.
Prea was allegedly murdered by three of his neighbours who lured him into a Memang commune forest early last month on the pretense of hunting before allegedly killing him with chainsaws, knives and stones.
Police who inspected the body said the attack amounted to “torture”.
But despite the horrific nature of the crime, residents of Prea’s native Poukes village are calling for the four suspects – the three alleged murderers and an accomplice – to be released from the provincial prison, where they are currently being held while awaiting trial.
His family has been cast out of the community and subjected to threats.
The consensus in the remote village, which is populated by the Phnong ethnic minority group, which holds traditional animist beliefs, is that Prea was a murderous sorcerer who ate children’s souls, inflicted illness upon a beloved neighbour and, ultimately, deserved his fate.
At his home last week, Prea’s loved ones prepared to dismantle their lives.
Just metres away, a new wooden stilt house is under construction, which they plan to move into in the coming weeks, leaving behind their current three-bedroom home and everything inside it – estimated to be worth about $15,000.
“Everything in this home has to be abandoned after his death. We can’t use it anymore due to our traditions,” said Prea’s brother-in-law, Srin Yin. “Our tradition also prohibits us from seeing the corpse. If we see it, we believe that the same problem will happen to us.”
As she tended to her son’s two young children, Prea’s mother, 42-year-old Cheum Veng, said an “evil ghost” has taken his place in the forest about two kilometres from the home.
“This is a belief passed down by our ancestors, so no one dares to go.”
The family hopes to hold a funeral for Prea, but with little money and the prospect of having to rebuild their lives from scratch, a formal ceremony has proved out of their reach.
“It is very difficult for the family now. There is no father to work to support us anymore, and Prea’s wife is pregnant. We are sorry to lose this home, but we have to,” Veng said.
According to his family, Prea was spending the night at home when four of his neighbours asked if he would like to go hunting.
“When he went out that night, I wasn’t worried, because they always used to do it.
They would hunt together and share the money from selling the animals the next morning,” said Prea’s wife, Srin Pjuth.
But when Prea didn’t return, Pjuth and her children started to worry.
“The kids and I cried; we were scared. Then we were told he was killed. I still don’t understand why. He had never had any problems with any of the villagers.”
However, just a few metres away, a group of neighbours later gathered to tell stories of threats, black magic and murder.
“He was a sorcerer, and he killed three of my kids just a few days after I gave birth to them, year after year,” said 20-year-old Lai Ith, whose husband is one of the suspects in the case.
Despite claims from Prea’s family that he was happily married, Ith said he had been madly in love with her, and her children’s deaths were punishment for it not being requited.
“He was angry with me when I refused to marry him … he said that I would be in trouble”.
Ith said Prea confessed that he had killed 120 people using magic before turning his attention to her.
“He made me sick and made my body swell bigger and bigger for more than 10 days. I couldn’t eat; I wasn’t conscious”, she said, squinting as tears built up in her eyes.
Ith’s mother, 40-year-old Srev Ry, shouted above her daughter that Prea had told the family “he wanted to eat humans, not rice or any other food”.
“We killed a few pigs to pray for him, but he didn’t accept them. He said that he wanted to eat [the souls of] human beings,” she yelled.
On the eve of his murder, the villagers held a ritualistic ceremony where everyone in the community was ordered to drink spiritual “oath water” to prove that they were not responsible for Ith’s ill health.
If the person behind her illness drank the water, villagers believed they would die.
But despite Prea taking part in the ceremony and remaining in good health, the following day, the villagers led him to his death.
“My husband took pity on me, so he killed the sorcerer. I recovered at the same moment the sorcerer died without taking any medicine,” Ith said.
While there was no doubt in the village as to who killed Prea, his murderers were last week revered as heroes.
“We are happy that he died. If he was still alive, my daughter would be dead,” said Ry to a chorus of agreement from neighbours gathered around her.
Ith, who has now fully recovered, said her husband should be released from prison so he can help to look after their newborn baby.
“He was a sorcerer, not just a simple villager, so my husband and the others killed him,” she said in defence of his crime.
But investigating judge Yar Narin said it is unlikely the suspects will be released before trial.
“It is really dangerous for the victim’s family when the suspects are out of detention.
The belief in sorcery is really deep in ethnic communities,” he added.
Back at Prea’s house, which is adorned in animal skulls and skins, his family vehemently denied the allegations of black magic.
“I never saw him doing anything to do with sorcery at home. He didn’t have any brateal [a succulent plant believed to hold magical properties], and didn’t practise magic,” Pjuth said.
Prea’s mother, who is now also accused of being a sorcerer, said villagers should have reported her son to the police, rather than murdering him.
“I would have been killed too if police hadn’t arrested the suspects so quickly.… I still want to have a good relationship with the villagers, but they don’t,” she said.
“I gave birth to my son, so if he is a sorcerer, I am too. But personally, I have never known or seen any sorcerer.”