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Witch hunt in Ratanakkiri

Rocham Kin, his wife Ramam Payi and their children
Rocham Kin, his wife Ramam Payi and their children have taken refuge in a police station after he was accused of being a sorcerer. Pha Lina

Witch hunt in Ratanakkiri

Accused of killing up to a dozen of his neighbours using black magic, Rocham Kin has been on the run for the past month. But all he did, he says, was try and use a magic plant to protect his crops

Rocham Kin hasn’t been to his home village for more than a month. He fears that if he returns, his neighbours will kill him.

An attempt to use the power of a supposedly magical plant several years ago has backfired on him badly. Like many before him in this remote province, the 48-year-old father of eight has been labelled a wicked sorcerer and banished from his village.

Until late last year, Kin was considered an ordinary member of his community. He lived with his wife, children and extended family in a small wooden stilt house almost identical to any other home in Chrung, a tiny village buried inside Ratanakkiri’s vast woodland.

He earned a living working on his father-in-law’s plantation and, over the course of more than two decades in his wife’s native village, forged close friendships with his neighbours.

But in December rumours circulated in the close-knit community that Kin was a serial killer, responsible for the murders of up to 12 people over the previous year.

There were no visible injuries on the alleged victims and no witnesses to the murders, because, villagers said, they had been killed by magic.

Kin’s neighbours accused him of using brateal, a succulent plant believed to hold a range of magical properties, to kill the victims. He was ostracised, attacked and allegedly threatened with death.

In April he left his home and family, and sought shelter in the forest surrounding the village, which is largely populated by Jarais, an indigenous minority group to which Kin himself belongs. After two weeks he was rescued and taken into protective custody in Bakeo district police station.

Chrung village chief Chvan Chorn
Chrung village chief Chvan Chorn says the villagers don’t want to kill Rocham Kin, they just don’t want him in their community. Pha Lina

Speaking at the station earlier this month, Kin said he was the victim of a community witch hunt.

“They accused me of killing the villagers who died, but I have never killed a person and I do not have brateal,” he said. “They attacked me many times and I suffered.”

About five years ago, Kin admitted, he found a variety of brateal known as tre, and planted it in his father-in-law’s plantation to protect crops from thieves.

“It is not vankachay [another type of brateal], which eats or kills people, it is tre – that just makes people swollen and have ulcers if they steal our property or crops,” he said.

But, according to Kin, just one month later his father-in-law uprooted the plant and threw it into a pond, believing that it had caused his wife to fall ill.

Kin said he hasn’t used magical plants again since then, so it came as a surprise when swarms of people began congregating at his home, ordering him to use magic to cure the sick.

With his wife and children listening intently, Kin meekly recalled the rituals he says he was forced to perform.

“I had to hold a knife in my mouth while praying for the sick villagers to recover,” he said. “They threatened that if the sick person did not recover, the knife would be used to stab and kill me.”

Kin said some villagers cut off the claw of a live chicken and ordered him to perform a prayer over its blood.

“They dreamed that I rescued them from drowning in water,” he said. “But I do not know about this – it is their affair.”

In constant fear for his safety, Kin said he was left unable to eat or sleep.

Holding up a filthy, ripped shirt, he explained that the threats were more than just verbal.

A villager wanted to kill him and tore his shirt, he said. “Everyone in the village hates me.”

In Chrung, dozens of villagers gathered last week beneath one of the stilt houses to tell stories about the exiled “sorcerer”.

Thirty-year-old Rocham Yen said his young wife fell inexplicably ill about two months ago, with a fever, sickness and cold flashes.

Sok Soau and Leang Sornn
Sok Soau and Leang Sornn were accused of using magic. Pha Lina

Instead of seeking medical advice, the couple visited a fortune-teller in a neighbouring village who told them that Kin’s brateal was behind the illness.

After the visit, they went to Kin’s house with a chicken and asked him to perform a prayer. When that didn’t work, they returned again with a live pig.

The pig was slaughtered in front of Kin, and its blood and liver extracted. The alleged sorcerer then mixed it into a potion and dabbed cotton into it. He placed the cotton onto Yen’s wife’s knees, elbows and chest, and said a prayer.

“The next morning my wife did recover. The sick who did this all recovered,” Yen said, looking to his wife, who was crouched next to him smiling.

Chvan Chorn, the 41-year-old chief of the village, said he too believed Kin was a sorcerer, and does not want him to return.

Chorn said it was the only way to explain the recent spate of illnesses, adding that the theory had been endorsed by people in neighbouring villages, and by multiple fortune-tellers.

He said Kin had confessed to eating a piece of brateal, allowing the plant’s magic to circulate “through his whole body”, and claimed that when Kin refused to pray for sick villagers, they died “one after another”.

Chorn denied that villagers wanted to kill Kin, arguing that if that were the case then they would have done so already.

“They could have killed him in a secret way, but they just expelled him from his home,” he said, as other villagers shouted in agreement.

Standing aside from the group, Kin’s wife, 35-year-old Ramam Payi – who has been staying with her husband at the Bakeo police station but accompanied Post Weekend reporters to the village – stared at the ground, shaking her head.

Payi, who speaks only broken Khmer, said that, while she does not feel personally threatened by her neighbours, the exile of her husband has made life difficult.

“No one takes care of the family now, especially when the kids are sick,” she said in her native language.

Villagers last week could not agree on how many people Kin had killed, with estimates ranging from five to 12.

Sok Soau receved a deep wound
Sok Soau receved a deep wound when he was attacked. Pha Lina

When asked about Kin, Romam Phort, an elderly woman who could not remember her age, immediately began listing the names of villagers he had murdered.

“Eight villagers died of the brateal … so villagers do not allow him to stay”, she said.

At the other end of the small village, at Kin’s former home, his father-in-law said his own life had been upturned because of the allegations.

“Almost all of the villagers came to my home with pigs and chickens [after Kin was accused of sorcery],” Rocham Vin said.

The 67-year-old said he was keen to have his son-in-law back at home, but couldn’t envisage a way that Kin would be able to live safely in the village.

He added that if villagers had fallen ill it was likely “because they do not pray or offer foods to the village spirit or devil”. As an afterthought he said that a lack of sanitation may also have caused diseases.

Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said Kin was just the latest in a long line of “sorcerers” to be persecuted in the province’s villages, which are largely populated by ethnic minorities.

Alleged sorcerers have been burned, stoned and shot dead, while many more have been chased from their homes.

Thy said magic is a “strong belief” for indigenous communities in the area, and one that is difficult to dispel.

Elsewhere in the province, just last month a couple were attacked by four assailants wielding machetes, who later told police that the assault had been motivated by the belief that the husband and wife were practising witchcraft.

Sok Soau and Leang Sornn, both 57, have also fled their home since the attack, and are currently staying with relatives about 40 kilometres away.

Leang Sornn
Leang Sornn was also injured by her neighbours. Pha Lina

The couple, who have both sustained severe injuries, said they had no idea why they had been targeted.

“The attackers accused me of being a sorcerer, but I am not aware of sorcery … I know only how to plant cucumbers,” Soau said as he picked at his leg where ants were crawling around a large wound, stitched loosely back together.

A decades-old corpse of a wild bird hung on the wall behind him, there, he said, to protect the property. But even that provides little solace to the couple.

The four assailants, who broke into their home while they were sleeping, were arrested immediately after the attack, but were released on bail just days later.

“We dare not to stay at home, or we will be killed because they were all released,” Soau said.

With medical bills mounting, and their injuries and fear preventing them from returning to work, the couple said they are concerned about their future.

Back at Bakeo police station, Kin said his own future hung in the balance.

He was unsure how long police would let him stay there and was relying on donations of food, which would soon dry up, to keep his large family alive.

As he awaited his fate, the “sorcerer” was left pondering where it all went wrong.

“I myself do not believe in sorcery,” he said.


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