The decade-old mystery surrounding “jungle girl” Rochom P’nhieng has taken yet another turn, with a family from Vietnam coming forward to claim her as their long-lost daughter.
P’nhieng captured international headlines when she was discovered wandering naked in a Ratanakkiri forest in 2007. She was taken in by a family in Un village who identified her as their daughter, claiming that she went missing while herding buffalo at the age of 9 or 10 in 1989 and was believed to have roamed the jungle for some 18 years.
However, a man named Pel, 70, from Gia Lai province in Vietnam, visited P’nhieng’s Cambodian custodians last Wednesday and Saturday, claiming that the woman was his long-lost daughter. Pel told P’nhieng’s purported Cambodian brother, Rochom Khamphy, the woman was not called P’nhieng but Tak and that she had disappeared in 2006 at the age of 23 after having a mental breakdown.
Khamphy said he was struck by the resemblance between the two.
“He recognised her by a spot at the corner of her lip, a scar on her left wrist and a condition with her ears. The father looked like her,” he said.
Despite international press coverage of her discovery, as well as theories as to how she came to be in the jungle, the Vietnamese family only found out about her recently through social media.
Pel came with nine relatives and a handful of documents – such as P’nhieng’s birth details and a report of her disappearance – in an effort to prove she was his daughter.
“If they had no evidence, I would still recognise her as my sister. But they had evidence and what they said is logical, so it is alright,” Khamphy said.
“We can give her back to them. If she was not their relative, they would not come to take her, because it is not easy to raise and take care of her. She is like a child.”
It has indeed not been easy caring for P’nhieng; when the Post visited her in January, she spent most of her days naked in a small, lightless hut. She would defecate in the hut, tear out her hair and rip off her clothes, but her family said they did not know another way to keep her from wandering off.
P’nhieng fled in 2010 and was missing for several days before she was found trapped in a 10-metre-deep dugout latrine.
Her Cambodian “father”, former Lumchor commune police officer Sal Lou, died in 2013, while her “mother”, Rochom Sory, is almost blinded from cataracts.
Khamphy said his family had asked Pel for $3,000 as compensation for taking care of P’nhieng for the past nine and a half years – money he said would be used to treat his mother’s blindness.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said he is monitoring the case to ensure that P’nhieng’s human rights were respected, and added that Pel’s account made more sense than Lou’s. “The Vietnamese family has witnesses and background confirmation from their authorities. Their claim is more reasonable than Sal Lou’s,” Thy said.
He added a voluntary donation would not constitute trafficking and hoped her Vietnamese family would be better equipped to support her and her needs. Her Cambodian family is now preparing legal documents and permission to transfer P’nhieng home to Vietnam with the help of village, commune and district authorities.
O’Yadav District Governor Mar Vichet, said while the case depended on the families to reach an agreement, a court decision was necessary. Provincial court spokesman Keo Pisoth said the case is entangled in immigration law and the Cambodian family’s decision must be backed by the courts and permission from local authorities.
While Pel may have found his daughter, the revelation means Khamphy’s sister is still lost. However, after consulting a fortune teller, Khamphy holds onto hope that she is still alive even though she has now been missing for 27 years.