Has she really spent 19 years living rough in the jungle?

One villager insists she's his long-lost daughter, but others ask how she beat hunger, cold, malaria - and kept her hair so neat
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The Independent Online

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 north-eastern province of Rattanakiri early on 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 was first spotted 10 days ago and captured three days later allegedly 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 talk in any intelligible language. While few villagers will hazard a guess about the woman's true story, many are sceptical over whether 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 civilisation. The woman could be one of them or have been taken care of by them. The possibility also exists that she could be a lost, traumatised refugee, since many members of hill tribe minorities facing religious persecution in Vietnam's nearby Central Highlands have fled through this area.

First reports, from Oyadao police chief Mao San, described her as "half-human and half-animal" with the "wild, red eyes of a tiger". But photographs of her show a well-fed young woman whose hands bear few marks of having hewn sustenance from the jungle for the past two decades. And the rumours of her being seen, pre-capture, in the company of a naked "jungle man" (who was said to have run off when approached) have only surfaced in the past few days.

One talking point among villagers has been the length of her hair, apparently already trimmed 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."

So far, the family says she mostly uses sign language to indicate her basic needs. She pats her stomach when she is hungry or needs to go the toilet and has taken a liking to the family's collection of karaoke videos. "She just stared at that video without blinking. She liked it very much," her putative father Sal Lousaid.

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. 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 last Sunday.

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." 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. Latest reports say that the family have declined to submit to a test.

Sal Lou is not the only family member claiming that 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 on Friday. "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. 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, Sal Lou said.