The Tragedy of Witch Hunts in Rural Cambodia

The sad, but not uncommon, tale of an elderly healer who was murdered with an axe.

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09 December 2015, 7:00am

Sek Loeung, the widow of Hem Ty, breaks down in tears. All photos by Jens Welding Øllgaard

When 83-year-old traditional healer Hem Ty attended a funeral of a 17-year-old girl in the central province of Kompong Thom, he left followed by rumours that he'd cast spells on the village locals. They even began to suspect he was responsible for the teenager's death.

"I heard from the father of the victim of the girl that he came to her funeral and lifted a sheet covering her body and touched her foot," said Hun Soeun, the police chief in rural Prasat Balaing district's Doung commune. "That's why they accused him of being a sorcerer."

A dog walks across a road cutting through Doung commune

Opinion was split among villagers as to why Hem Ty touched the feet of the dead teenager. Some believed he was simply checking to see if the girl was definitely deceased. After all, he had been a well-respected member of the community, said Sek Loeung, his 69-year-old widow.

Hem Ty began practicing traditional medicine at the age of 24 while he was living as a monk in a nearby pagoda. After leaving the monkhood, he married Loeung, a distant relative, and settled down and had ten children. As well as farming, for decades he had a steady stream of patients visiting him for a wide range of illnesses.

Sek Loeung inside her home

"He would treat children who would cry at night. He would put water in his mouth and then spray it in their faces to bless them," Loeung explained last month from their traditional stilted home. "He would also make medicine from the bark of a tree for women who had just given birth. He believed that when they would take this, the bad blood inside the woman's body would be released."

Despite this, others in the community had different ideas. Among them were those who suspected Hem Ty touched the girl's feet in an effort to steal her spirit. The father of the deceased girl had already decided his daughter must have fallen victim to black magic as doctors in Siem Reap City could not cure her of her illness, described only by villagers as a "disease of the bone."

Rumours of Hem Ty's behaviour at the funeral set off a chain of acts of sabotage against his family. The family's dog was poisoned and a large stockpile of wood planned for a building a new house set on fire. Then on November 4, Hem Ty failed to return from his cashew plantation for his evening meal.

Hem Ty's daughter Ty Luon speaks with a young neighbor inside her father's former home.

"After we couldn't find him the information spread and others came to help," said his daughter Ty Luon. "Six of us were looking around the cashew nut plantation."

After around two hours, they made a gruesome discovery.

"By 7 PM, we could still not find him so we put a fishing rod into the pond and it hooked onto a shirt, then we pulled it up and his body appeared. He had been chopped five times on the head with an axe," said Ty Luon. At this point, the police officer produced photos of the bloody corpse on his smartphone.

Hem Ty is the latest in a long line of people killed after being accused of sorcery in Cambodia. In April last year, a 600-strong mob in Takeo stoned a man to death. It was alleged that he'd caused the deaths of several elderly people. In July, three men in Mondolkiri admitted to murdering a man they suspected of sorcery. A few days later, a traditional healer was beheaded in Kompong Speu.

Pictures of Hem Ty's sons inside his former home

According to Ryun Patterson, a journalist and author of Vanishing Act: A Glimpse Into Cambodia's World of Magic, long-held superstition mixed with the harsh lives of so many rural Cambodians creates the "ideal climate" for sorcery killings.

"As with witch hunts around the globe, this goes back hundreds of years, and I think it's tied to basic human psychology. Our brains work really hard to find patterns in things, to find causes for the effects we see everyday," Patterson said. "When we can't see the cause, or if we're completely powerless to change a bad situation, I think our brains look for connections that might not actually exist."

Vong Sotheara, an expert on Cambodian culture, epigraphy, and history thinks ancient beliefs around black magic can be traced back more than a thousand years. But like Patterson, he believes sorcery killings can as much be blamed on economic and political factors as superstitious.

"Most of those people are poorly educated," he says. "When they become hopeless in finding the solution by physical or scientific ways, they always turn to back on the magicians."

One month after the killing of Hem Ty, there have been no arrests made in the case, although on Thursday district police chief Chhin Chhum said his officers had identified one suspect. Commune police chief Soeun said that he did not personally believe in black magic and sorcery, claiming that he "believes in the law" and that he has made efforts to "educate" locals to avoid pointing fingers at alleged sorcerers.

Sek Loeung

Back at their simple home, Ty's widow Loeung flipped through a small picture book containing the only pictures of her husband."I'm worried that someone who beat my husband could attack me, too," she says, fighting back tears."I'm so regretful. I don't understand why people put the blame on him. My husband was a good person, he never wanted to cause harm to people."