Forest ranger Tern Soknai was killed while on duty in January and left behind a young daughter who is still recovering.
Ou’Raing district, Mondulkiri province – Soknai Nasa’s big bright eyes scan her surroundings as her grandmother Kai Plous describes how her granddaughter often cries out for her dead father.
Speaking in the Bunong dialect and broken Khmer, Ms Plous says life for six-year-old Nasa has been difficult, noting she was abandoned by her mother as a baby and then lost her father Tern Soknai, a forest ranger, in January.
Mr Soknai was gunned down along with a military police officer and conservation worker during a routine patrol in the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary.
According to the Wildlife Alliance, the “attack is thought to have been out of retaliation for their seizure of illegal logging equipment from armed government forces who backed the illegal logging trade.”
The provincial court has charged three suspects, Phal Penh, chief of the O’Rolear border post, Kert Veha, a military officer, and Kert Veta, with premeditated murder, and another three suspects, Chheang Vannith, Lay Savy, and Torn Theara, with forestry crimes in connection to the shootings; all remain behind bars pending trial.
“Nasa always cries and wants her father back,” Ms Plous says.
Nasa focuses her attention on a smart phone playing interview footage of her father before he died.
“She always misses her father,” Ms Plous adds.
Following the murder of Mr Soknai, Nasa’s stepmother left the province with her stepsister. Her birth mother lives in Thailand.
Ms Plous says even though the home Nasa was living in with her father and stepmother belonged to her son, his second wife Touch Narann locked the house before she left to stay with relatives in Kampong Cham province with her three-year-old daughter.
“My son’s second wife did not love Nasa, that’s why she abandoned her,” Ms Plous says. “Ms Narann took all of my son’s money, which was donated after he died, and left for her homeland. She took Nasa’s half-sister and left without a word. The house is empty now, and Ms Narann gave me nothing.”
“Ms Narann did not even tell the village chief about leaving,” Ms Plaus adds, noting Nasa now lives with her at her home. “I was so angry when she did this and showed no compassion for Nasa.”
Sen Monorom commune chief Kvan Trial says Ms Narann came to Mondulkiri with Mr Soknai.
“She went back to her homeland in Kampong Cham because she does not have relatives in this province,” Ms Trial says, adding that it was Ms Plous who did not allow Nasa to go with Ms Narann. “Soknai Nasa understands that Ms Narann is her second mother.”
Ms Plous had seven children, and now aunts and uncles help Nasa to go to school.
Nasa is admired by her neighbours for her intelligence and politeness toward seniors, says Ms Plous.
However, since her father died, she has been having difficulty concentrating at school.
Nasa also contracted malaria after her father’s murder and the family had a hard time paying for treatment.
Nonetheless, Ms Plous vows care for Nasa until the very end. She wants to see Nasa become an even better forest ranger than Mr Soknai was by being strong and well-educated.
For now, Nasa continues to cry in front of her old house when she misses her father.
Mr Monorom says commune authorities will not allow anyone to unlock the door to the house due to potential problems.
Ms Plous says Ms Narann wanted the house after Mr Soknai died, but she has vowed to keep it for Nasa in the future.
“I already informed authorities that this land is to be given to Nasa,” Ms Plous says.
Kich Bean, a neighbour, says she returned one day from cultivating land and saw Ms Plous and Nasa crying because the door to the home was locked.
“When Soknai Nasa misses her father, she always sits in front of the old house,” Ms Bean says. “She would always tell her grandmother that she wants to go inside to see where her dad slept.”
“Soknai Nasa holds on to the towel her father used to use, it stops her from crying so much,” Ms Bean adds. “Now she only has a towel.”