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Travel and World Culture   

Cambodia: As Good as Dead
By Sho Spaeth

As we drove through the village, a crowd of men and children formed and trailed after the car. Not many cars were seen in these parts. When the car stopped, the crowd stopped; and the men lit up cigarettes. When we got out and made our way over to them, the children hid behind the men. Rouen, our translator, walked up to the crowd, made a few inquiries, and then turned around and nodded at us. We came forward, palms pressed together, and said our Hellos. One of the men broke away from the pack, walked down the path, and stopped outside the gate of a house and looked back, pointing.

A week earlier, the villagers had woken up to machine-gun fire at three in the morning. A man and his two sons had been shot dead—assassinated, according to the subsequent police investigation, for practicing black magic. The police had stopped investigating the case for two reasons: no one had seen the gunners, and the man who had been killed had been a confirmed sorcerer, a fact that had been corroborated by the local abbot.

The sorcerer’s house was a typical Cambodian house: a wooden structure stilted by concrete pillars. The yard, fenced in by a plywood fence, was all dirt. There were some scratchings in the dirt, made by the balding puppy or the silent children who stood staring at us. And the sorcerer’s family sat huddled underneath their house on the large rectangular wooden block that served as both dinner table and pallet.

Rouen walked up first, introducing us. The women were grouped together in the back around an old woman with a shaven head. The men were seated in front, all of them, except for the youngest amongst them resting lazy-eyed stares on the newcomers. The young man leveled blood-shot eyes at us, a fly crawling on his left cheek unchecked. After explaining that we had come to find out about the murders, Rouen turned around and beckoned to us while the family made room on the pallet. We sat.

Corinne began asking questions in English with Rouen translating. The responses were slow to start, but soon the entire family was responding to the questions, correcting each other, questioning each other. Rouen stopped translating for us and wrote rapidly in his notebook. Corinne looked confused. Aside from the children, the young man was the only one who remained silent, his eyes darting from speaker to speaker, the fly now on his forehead, now on his right cheek, now the neck.

The events had been as reported apparently. The family had had dinner and had gone to sleep, the father sleeping upstairs with his wife and the younger children, the three older sons, sixteen, twenty-one, and twenty-three, sleeping below the house on the pallet. At around three in the morning rounds of gunfire woke the family up. The father ran down the stairs to the yard and was shot five times in the chest. The sixteen-year-old boy grabbed a hatchet and went after the gunner. He too was shot dead. The eldest son picked up a hammer and threw it at the gunner, who was hit and ran through the yard into the tiny field in the back of the house and disappeared. The twenty-one-year-old fled to the back yard as soon as he had heard gunfire and found another gunner waiting with a handgun. They wrestled, and the gunner threw the son down and tried to make an escape, but was confronted by the eldest son, who by now was wielding a rake. The gunner shot him once in the neck and fled. The eldest son died a few hours later.          


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