By Denise Hruby
It was like a scene from a medieval witch hunt: a victim, accused of a crime that has never been committed, is surrounded by a mob. Terror ensues, before an inevitable death.
On a balmy afternoon, Pov Sovann was sitting outside his house in a tiny town in rural Cambodia, chatting with his relative. Like on most days, there wasn’t much to do besides occasionally tending livestock and watching villagers pass by.
Then, without warning, a group of about 200 people approached him. Armed with wooden sticks and stones, they yelled at him, accusing the 36-year-old of black magic.
With sorcery, the increasingly agitated mob shouted, Sovann had brought death upon six families in the village — each of which had relatives pass away without prior history of disease over the past two years, local newspapers reported.
Sovann was driven into his bedroom upstairs, where a dozen men bludgeoned him.
For years, Sovann had been a renowned traditional healer, a well-respected man in his community who mixed potions from herbs and roots.
Two days before the attack, the relatives of a recently deceased woman allegedly saw centipedes around a corpse’s head — proof enough for the villagers that the 54-year-old woman had been cursed.
Between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., the crowd swelled from 200 to 600 villagers.
“My police could not do anything because there were many people who carried stones and clubs and were very violent,” the district’s penal police chief, Khut Lo, told The Cambodia Daily.
Eventually, after countless stones, fists and clubs had hailed down on Sovann, he was pushed down the stairs of his house and died.
The case of Pov Sovann is particularly grisly, yet it isn’t the first, nor will it be the last.
Human rights group Licadho said they recorded one case of a person being killed for sorcery in 2012, and a total of three in 2013. In the first half of this year, the media has already reported four.
In January, six people set upon an alleged sorcerer and decapitated him. Two days later, another practitioner was hacked to death with a machete. In May, a sorcerer was killed by his own nephew, armed with a scythe.
Experts are struggling to come up with a reason for the brutal killings.
Ryun Patterson, an independent journalist who has spent several months researching magic and sorcery in Cambodia for an e-book, said that “mystics” enjoy a high level of respect among their communities.
“In many cases we saw evidence of that, as people would line up outside the mystics’ working areas while we conducted our interviews,” he said.
Perhaps, he said, it’s simply a strong belief in magic — good and bad — that makes people so afraid of potential harm that they would turn against their neighbors.