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Kidnap specter haunts Cambodian parents

Kidnap specter haunts Cambodian parents

Chhit Maria dreads getting a ransom call for her eight-year-old child. Last year

she paid her daughter's teacher an extra $5 per month to keep an eye on her

while she plays or waits to be collected from school.

Maria is not

wealthy, earning only a modest salary at international NGO Partners For

Development (PFD). But she understands better than most what it would be like to

go through the torment of a kidnap-for-ransom after she recently assisted one of

PFD's staff endure the kidnapping of his son.

"I'm still afraid because

sometimes the kidnappers just ask for a few thousand dollars," she says. "The

big money is difficult but this is very quiet and nobody knows, people are too

afraid to tell the police. They run this as a business, catching kids."


cursory glance through the local newspapers turns up a regular stream of kidnap

stories. Sometimes the organized gangs target wealthy businessmen or government

officials demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars. More often the ransom

demands come from neighbors or relatives, and are for a few hundred or a few

thousand dollars.

Luong Nem (names have been changed at the family's

request) works at a provincial office of PFD. His wife and five children have

lived in Phnom Penh's Samaki village since fires destroyed their home in a

squatter camp almost a year ago.

The Luong family's nightmare began on

October 9 when 13-year-old Sabei was walking home from school around 4 p.m.

Sabei did not get there, so his mother took to the streets in search of


"My son was taken and drugged once before, around two years ago,"

she says. "Then we found him at Wat Phnom so I went there and looked."


man on a moto approached her and asked if she was looking for her son. Shortly

after she found herself in a car with tinted windows, blindfolded and driving

the streets of Phnom Penh. She was taken to see her son at a sparsely-furnished

house that she believes was the center of an organized kidnapping


"I saw three other children in the house and they cried when

they saw me. They thought I was their mother," she says. "Another woman was in

the house and she was crying, but they kept us separated.

"They asked me

not to see the police or my son would be killed. A man at the house said: 'If

you give me $3,000 then I'll give you your kid back'."

Luong Neary phoned

her husband who said they could only afford $300 but the kidnappers


"This is not a market you don't bargain here," one of the

kidnappers told Neary. They insisted that her husband, Nem, remain in the


"I went back to my house and just sat and cried," Nem says.

"Later a fortune-teller told me my son was alive so I kept my spirits


Neary woke up the next day in the park opposite the Royal Palace, a

victim, she believes, of water spiked with sleeping pills. She managed to raise

half the sum demanded by selling a family property in Prey Veng.


pleaded that they accept $1,500 but they refused and said: 'Ask your husband to

borrow the other $1,500'."

The couple eventually managed to take a loan

for the rest plus an extra $300 the kidnappers demanded for the boy's food. The

pair estimate that over a third of Nem's salary for each of the next 18 months

will go to paying off the ransom debt.

Neary was driven to a rubber

plantation in Kampong Cham where she was reunited with Sabei. They walked for

two hours before they found a moto taxi. Sabei remembers very little of the

whole ordeal except that he was given two meals day and spent most of the time

asleep or semi-conscious on sleeping pills.

"When he was released he was

sick and dizzy and he had no energy," his mother says of her son, who was

hospitalized on his release. Almost a week later he sits rubbing his temples and

taking deep breaths from a bottle of eucalyptus, a bewildered victim of one of

Cambodia's every day crimes.

The family has now moved to another part of

Phnom Penh and enrolled their children in a new school. They do not wish to

contact police for fear of reprisals.

Bith Kim Hong, vice-commissioner of

Phnom Penh's municipal police, says the families of victims should cooperate

with the authorities and give information even after the event.


the most important thing, so that we can save them. Without cooperation, the

victims would lose both life and money," he says.

But victims often have

no faith in the police and know that negotiations do not always go well. In

August a policeman was shot in the face with an AK-47 during an exchange of fire

with a group of kidnappers.

However, Commissioner Hong says concerted

efforts by the police have cut the number of kidnappings.

"Before the

criminals kidnapped people in the street. Since we strengthened our police

presence with more patrols they do not dare to do that any more," he says. "At

this moment, most cases happen when people are tricked by a friend giving them a


Hong says either gangs or drug addicts carry out most

kid-nappings, and the police can trace them once they get to know their modus


"We always get a good result when the family cooperates," he


In mid-October the 20-year-old son of Sihanoukville's deputy

governor Sbong Sarath was rescued by the police from kidnappers. When the

kidnappers rang to demand $300,000 Sarath informed the police.


arrested a suspect who led them to the hideout. Three men were arrested and

warrants were issued for another three, who remain at large.

But many

other kidnappings end in tragedy. The five-year-old son of Tove Mann, a finance

officer at an international NGO, was kidnapped in May


"Unfortunately my son died the same day he was kidnapped," Mann


That didn't stop the kidnapper dragging out the ordeal for Mann

and his wife for 25 days. The night Mann's son disappeared the kidnapper called

demanding $8,000. Mann said he would only negotiate if he could speak with his

son, but the kidnapper refused.

In Mann's case the kidnapper lived just

50 meters from his house and was well known to him. He was his mother-in-law's

stepson. Over a period of three weeks, the kidnapper sent him letters and came

to his house demanding cash on a daily basis.

"He said: 'Your child is

still OK', and he sent three letters. He wrote: 'If you don't pay then you will

find the head of your son in front of your house'," says Mann. "It was


After 20 days of torment Mann gave the kidnapper $3,000

despite the fact that he still had not spoken to his son. When the kidnapper

still did not hand over his son, Mann went to the police.

Only then did

he discover that his boy was long dead.

"He had given him five tablets of

sleeping medicine," Mann explains. "One or two would be OK, but for a small boy

five was too many."

The kidnapper led police to a lake where he had

dumped the child's body on the first day. He is now serving a life


"Now I have another son, four months old. We begin to live

step-by-step," Mann says.

Michael Chommie, country director of PFD, says

Sabei's kidnapping made him realize that many of his staff live in fear. He is

now contemplating 'kidnap-and-ransom' insurance.

"It's something country

managers out there need to be aware of," he says.


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