Parents identify Cambodian jungle woman by scar on her arm

Small groups of people come and go all day, peering into the dirty, ramshackle house where Cambodia's 'jungle woman' lives with the family that is claiming her as their long-lost daughter.

About 30 people gathered in this remote district in the northeastern province of Rattanakiri early Saturday morning outside the home of Sal Lou, poking their heads through the front door and peering through windows for a glimpse of the dark-skinned, skinny woman the family claims is Rochom P'ngieng, who would now be 27 years old.

Their daughter went missing from the area at the age of eight while herding buffalo in 1988.

Sal Lou, a village policeman, and his family insist the woman who emerged from the jungle a week ago - naked, grunting, and walking like a wild animal - is their daughter, identifiable by a scar on her arm.

But to many in this dirt-poor area of Cambodia, there is more mystery than miracle to the case. No clues have emerged from the woman herself, who can speak but shows no signs of being able to speak any intelligible language.

While few villagers will hazard a guess about the woman's true story is, many are skeptical she could survive on her own in the jungle. Nomadic people do live in small isolated groups in this part of Cambodia, avoiding contact with civilization. The woman could be one of them or have been taken care of by them.

The possibility also exists that she cold be a lost, traumatized refugee, since many members of hill tribe minorities facing religious persecution in Vietnam's nearby Central Highlands have fled through this area.

The grown-up feral child spends her days mostly sitting or lying on the floor, sleeping or staring glassy-eyed at the visitors who gawk at her.

As she ate a breakfast of plain rice porridge on Saturday, the onlookers considered her case.

She was discovered earlier this month after a villager noticed that food disappeared from a lunch box he left at a site near his farm, said local police.

Concealing himself to catch the thief, he was astonished to see it was a naked young woman. With the help of some friends, they captured her on Jan. 13.

A big talking point among local villagers has been the length of her hair, apparently already trimmed relatively short when she was caught.

"It should have been very long by now. I am very puzzled by her short hair," said Meng Chuon, 50, an onlooker from the area.

There were many questions about how she could have survived in the wild at all, especially for such a long time, he noted.

"What did she eat? This area is very cold at night. She was naked all the time. Also, this is malarial country."

The beliefs of the highly superstitious people in the area _ many of whom are animists who revere nature _ caused him to hedge his doubts: "Maybe, though, the jungle spirit cut her hair for her," he suggested.

Sal Lou, 45, who is a member of the Pnong ethnic minority, described the woman when he first saw her. "She was naked and walking in a bending-forward position like a monkey, exactly like a monkey. She was bare-bones skinny."

Her eyes were red like a tiger's, he said, and he felt afraid.

But he checked her right arm. There he found a scar, just as his missing daughter had from an accident with a knife before she disappeared.

"She looked terrible, but despite all of that, she is my child," he said.

Objective evidence for the relationship, beyond a certain physical resemblance, is thin. Officials want to take DNA samples from the parents and the woman to see if they match, and the parents have agreed, said district police chief Mao San.

But Sal Lou is not the only family member claiming Rochom P'ngieng has returned at last.

Rochom Khamphi, 25, said that the moment she arrived at their house with Sal Lou he went to grab her right arm to check for the scar.

"I saw the scar right away and I knew that she is my sister," he said Friday. "Then tears just rolled down from my eyes. That's the proof. I remember it very clearly -- I'm not making it up, because I was the one who caused the injury."

The woman's thoughts are impossible to ascertain. On Thursday she took off her clothes and acted as if she was about to go back into the wild, Sal Lou said.

Restraining her, the family brought her to a nearby Buddhist pagoda for a monk to give her a holy water blessing to expel any evil spirits that may have possessed her, he said.

For members of the Pnong minority, who are generally animists, the move was unusual, the AP reports.

"We worship no religion but we took the advice of some elderly Khmer (ethnic Cambodian) people to have the holy water blessing done to chase the evils souls from her body," said Sal Lou, as his presumed daughter sat next to him, motionless as a stone.

The streak of wildness is also evident to a neighbor, Cheat Ki, and it frightens her.

"When she looked at me, I dared not look at her. and I had to turn my face away," said Cheat Ki, who runs a food shop next door to Sal Lou's house.

"I was so scared, scared of evil spirits that might have come with her," she said. "At night before we went to sleep, after seeing her, I told my children to lock the door for fear that some evil might come and strangle us."

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