Rocham P’nhieng, who spent nearly two decades lost in the wilds of Ratanakkiri, became an international media sensation after she was found in 2007. Unfortunately, none of the attention translated into help for her rehabilitation
It has been nine years since Cambodia’s so-called “jungle girl” emerged from the wild in the country’s remote northeast, capturing the imaginations of people across the world, but after being reintroduced into society her tragic life of isolation has quietly continued.
It was January 13, 2007, when the young woman – dirty, naked and emaciated – was found in woodland in Ratanakkiri province. She was soon named by a local family as their long-lost relative Rocham P’nhieng, who had disappeared as a child almost two decades earlier while herding buffalo.
In the weeks following her re-appearance, journalists, psychiatrists and aid workers flocked to meet the mysterious woman who seemingly spoke no intelligible language and whose behaviour was described as more akin to a monkey than a human.
Unable to tell her own story, speculation about what had happened to her grew, with theories ranging from a life lived in captivity to one spent among wild animals.
While the legend of the “jungle girl” lives on, in her native O’Yadav district the woman herself hasn’t been seen in public for years.
Neighbours in Oun village last month claimed she had returned to the jungle long ago, unable to cope with life outside.
At her home, she was also notably absent around the table where the rest of her extended close-knit family prepared dinner.
It was a small wooden structure behind the family home that held the secret of her second vanishing act.
From a distance, it looked like little more than a tool shed. But upon closer inspection, the sound of chanting through its cracks suggested something more sinister.
Behind its bolted door, the “jungle girl” was hunched in a corner, rocking herself gently backwards and forwards as she chanted in an indecipherable tongue.
Now believed to be in her mid-30s, P’nhieng is still unable to communicate in any intelligible language. She refuses to wear clothes for long periods of time, ripping them off and pushing the rags through the cracks of the shack.
According to the family, P’nhieng only leaves the building – which they claim was constructed by a foreign aid worker – when she or it needs to be washed. She defecates, sleeps and eats on its wooden floor, and with no electricity almost all of her life is lived in darkness and silence.
P’nhieng’s purported mother, 56-year-old Rocham Sory, who is feeble and suffering from cataracts that the family can’t afford to treat, said she didn’t know how else to care for the daughter she was so devastated to lose as a child.
“We give her clothes and she tears them off every time ... She seems not to be human now; she breaks everything like spoons and plates. She is like a child,” she said.
According to Sory, P’nhieng’s behaviour has worsened since 2010, when she tried to escape and was found days later at the bottom of a 10-metre-deep dugout toilet.
Sory fears she will escape again if the family let her roam free. “We lock her up, but we don’t shackle her. If we didn’t she would walk away to the market naked. We are worried about this, but we know she would never hurt or injure anyone,” she said.
While the family acknowledges that P’nhieng needs greater support if she is ever to recover and reintegrate, they say they are unable to afford even adequate meals.
“We never bring her to hospital because we don’t have money. We only give her food twice a day ... We don’t have money to buy meat for her,” Sory said.
Rocham Chanthy, P’nhieng’s 27-year-old sister and primary care-giver, forced a dress on her older sibling to protect her modesty from men in the house as she prepared to wash her hair.
As P’nhieng left her shed, an uneaten bowl of noodles was returned to the kitchen, leaving nothing in the wooden structure but traces of spit.
P’nhieng, who remains frail, frequently rips her own hair out, leaving it short and wispy. She wandered aimlessly around the garden talking quietly to herself, looking visibly ill at ease in clothes.
When presented with a bag of apples, P’nhieng devoured them on the step of the outhouse, while staring into the middle distance.
Chanthy said she was desperate for someone to teach her sister to speak. While P’nhieng now seems to understand simple instructions delivered in Khmer, she never communicates when she needs to do basic things like eat or go to the toilet.
“She doesn’t talk to us and I don’t know who can teach her to speak and tell us what she wants. Of course she must be hungry sometimes and know she needs things, but she never tells us,” Chanthy said. “She doesn’t tell us when we forget to give her breakfast or lunch because we are busy. If we didn’t give her food, she wouldn’t eat for a month.”
In addition to lessons in communicating, Chanthy said the family dreamed of equipping the outhouse with a toilet and electricity but couldn’t afford the costs of the improvements.
O’Yadav district’s Governor Mar Vichet said he had given personal donations to the family and would provide them with more money soon on behalf of the Cambodian Red Cross.
He maintained that such support was helping P’nhieng to recover, albeit slowly.“She is getting better – she knows how to eat and dress herself now, not like before,” he said.
But others say more needs to be done to address the root of P’nhieng’s problems.
Seang Leap, coordinator of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization’s (TPO) Operation Unchained program, which seeks to provide treatments to mentally ill people chained up by desperate families around Cambodia, said P’nhieng needed proper psychiatric care.
He said limited money and staff means TPO is not always able to provide vital support to people like P’nhieng, but warned that locking loved ones with mental health problems away can often make their conditions worse.
Spanish mental health organisation Psicólogos Sin Fronteras, which has provided support to P’nhieng in the past, did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, with no significant support on the horizon and even basic conversations proving impossible, P’nhieng’s assumed mother said she had lost hope of ever finding out what happened to her daughter to change her so drastically.
“She sings and laughs alone, but we don’t understand her. We don’t know what language she uses,” Sory said. “We don’t know who was with her in the forest. We don’t know whether she lived with elephants, tigers or buffalo, but now she knows nothing.”