It was raining the night that the attacker – or attackers – broke into Ouy Sok’s cottage, decapitated him and covered his headless body with a plank of wood. Pich Ra, 25, recalled that fact the next day when the village chief brought him the news about his neighbour.
“He did not deserve to die,” said Ra, who described Sok as a quiet man who spent his days tending to his three cows. “This was revenge for his sorcery. But I don’t think he was a sorcerer.”
More than a week after the 69-year-old traditional healer was beheaded in Kampot province for being a “sorcerer”, police are silent on whether they have any suspects, villagers remain divided over whether their neighbour was truly a practitioner of black magic and Sok’s head still has yet to be found.
The grisly killing highlights the still-strong belief in black magic in many parts of Cambodia, where a predilection for mob justice – and perhaps, in the case of Sok, a lack of access to mental health care – often make for tragic outcomes.
Residents of Tamnak Trayueng and Chamkarmon villages, in Kampot’s Chhouk district, say they had been suspicious of Sok for years after he began acting strangely – talking to himself, nailing stakes aimlessly along the roads and shouting that he had sickened their relatives with black magic.
Sok’s family believes his increasingly erratic behaviour was the result of the onset of mental illness and excessive drinking. To other villagers, however, it was interpreted as an obvious sign of sorcery. Soon, villagers started reporting a number of unusual deaths that they attributed to Sok.
“When I saw his face, I would walk away,” said 23-year-old Ngoath Cheavda, a resident of neighbouring Chamkarmon village. “It’s better for him to be dead than alive. Whoever he touched, wherever he touched them, they would get sick.”
Tamnak Trayueng villager Seng Ouch, 51, blamed her husband’s death in January on Sok.
According to Ouch, her husband had suffered for years from liver and lung diseases that neither modern doctors nor traditional healers could fix. One day, while she was away on a trip, her husband passed away.
“We were poor,” Ouch said. “We spent a lot of money. We sold everything to treat him.”
Despite her husband’s chronic illness, and the fact that he hadn’t had any interactions with Sok, Ouch was convinced that he was to blame.
Sok’s son, 29-year-old Vorn Earb, said “whispered rumours” about his father started roughly 10 years ago after his father separated from his mother, began drinking heavily and exhibiting strange behaviour.
Despite denying the accusations, Earb helped his family burn his father’s cottage and headless body in an effort to erase his memory from the community, marking it only with a large mound of dirt and a few sticks of incense.
“We burned him because the villagers are scared of him,” Earb said.
Cambodia’s belief in the supernatural and traditional healers dates to before the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism, according to researcher Ryun Patterson, who is writing his second book about sorcery and traditional healing in Cambodia.
However, the belief system is often makeshift, and it is not unusual for the tide of public opinion to turn against healers when sicknesses or unexplained disasters sweep the village, Patterson said. “When you start to get ostracised from small, rural communities, it’s an old story,” Patterson said. “These outsiders are going to get blamed when things go wrong.”
Even decapitations, while extreme, are not unheard of. In 2013, villagers in a different district of Kampot province beheaded an alleged sorcerer. A year later, villagers in Kampong Speu decapitated a 55-year-old traditional healer after they became suspicious of him.
Sotheara Chhim, the director of mental health NGO Transcultural Psychosocial Organization, said that the delusions of people with mental illness – particularly those that touch on cultural beliefs, such as changing the weather or killing people with powers – can resemble the behaviour villagers tend to associate with sorcery.
Chhim said greater awareness of mental health issues is needed in rural areas to help identify potential cases.
Villagers insist they do not know who killed Sok, although some darkly hinted that his killers lived in the area. His head, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found.
Asked whether police had any suspects, Kampot Provincial Police Chief Mao Chan Makthurith would only say police “are working on it”.
It is unclear whether villagers care much about finding the perpetrator. In the week since the healer’s death, many say the village feels better, the mood lifted. Others confess they now fear being haunted by his ghost. “When he was alive, we were scared,” said 49-year-old resident Tep Torn, chuckling. “Now that he’s dead, we’re still scared.”