When a woman was found in the Cambodian jungle it was said she had lived wild for almost 20 years. The truth was far more tragic, and the mystery was only cracked thanks to a photo posted on Facebook
A Cambodian man working deep in the jungle in 2017 was puzzled when items kept going missing from his lunchbox.
One day he lay in wait and spotted a filthy, naked, battered, and bruised woman lurking in the trees.
He gathered some friends and they went into the jungle, caught her, and took her to the authorities.
The thin and bedraggled woman was unable to speak, preferred to crawl rather than walk, and would strip off when people tried to clothe her. She would point to her mouth when she was hungry and liked to play with children’s toys.
Tales of this ‘jungle woman’ soon spread and a policeman from a nearby village claimed the woman was his daughter Rochom, who had gone missing 19 years earlier in 1998, aged eight while looking after the family’s water buffalo.
He said on a scar on her arm, supposedly from a knife accident that had happened prior to the girl’s disappearance, and her facial features proved she was his missing child.
The story soon spread. Was this woman really a ‘jungle child” who had miraculously survived for years in the wilderness, like a modern-day Tarzan or Mowgli?
However, western journalists soon began casting doubt on such claims. They pointed out the woman’s hair had been cut short when she was found and she had deep scars on her left wrist and ankle.
The woman also appeared to have mental health issues and, in such a remote area with almost non-existent medical facilities, it was not unknown for families to keep people with such problems on a leash.
One journalist said: “The claim she is a feral child who has been in the jungle for years is almost certainly nonsense.
“Beyond the family’s ardent claims to recognise her, there is no evidence that she is the missing girl. She was probably brought up in captivity, somehow escaped, and then found her way to a father who desperately wanted to recover something he had loved and lost.”
The family refused to allow DNA tests to be taken and took her in, despite already having 15 mouths to feed on the dad’s meagre income of $25 per month.
Over the next few years the woman, who was constantly pestered by people coming to gawp at her, would frequently escape back to the jungle.
Often she disappeared for days at a time before returning, and while she had learned to feed, bathe and dress, her ‘father’ said he was trying to raise money so he could take her to a spiritual healer to exorcise the ‘jungle spirits’ from her.
One day she went to take a bath in the well behind the family home and disappeared. Eleven days later she was found crying at the bottom of a 10-metre deep toilet pit, with human waste up to her chest. It was not known how long she had been there.
She was taken to hospital and when she had recovered, a mental health charity began to visit her weekly. It reported she preferred to live and sleep in a small chicken coop near the family’s home, joining the family for meals only every three or four days. She still did not speak but had started to make eye contact with people.
Then, in 2016, there was a dramatic twist to the tale
A man named Pel, 70, from Vietnam saw pictures of the girl posted on Facebook and claimed the woman was actually his missing daughter Tak who had disappeared in 2006 aged 23, following a complete mental breakdown.
This new timeline suggested she had been missing for just a year before being found and he was able to identify her by a spot on her lip, a scar on her wrist, and an ear condition she suffered from. He said she had never spoken since birth.
He produced nine relatives to give evidence, as well as documentation about Tak’s birth and her disappearance.
According to Dailystar.co.uk, after government officials spent two weeks reviewing the case, the woman left Cambodia with her family and returned to Vietnam with the blessing of the people who wrongly thought she was their daughter.
One said: “We gave her back to her Vietnamese father. Both my family and her Vietnamese relatives cried while watching their reunion. We are going to miss her.”
Since then Tak has stayed out of the headlines and little is known about her. It can only be hoped she is safe in the bosom of her real family and is getting the mental health support she needs.