The murder of Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of North Korea’s leader, is likely to go down as one of the most notorious in history. Two women are now facing trial in Malaysia for it. Nga Pham of BBC Vietnamese and Rebecca Henschke of BBC Indonesian piece together their story.
The CCTV footage from the departure lounge of Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport is unforgettable. A middle-aged man is approached from behind by two women who execute the most peculiar of manoeuvres, apparently wiping his face with vigour.
Authorities say that was the moment that VX nerve agent, a deadly substance banned by the UN as a weapon of mass destruction, was used to murder Kim Jong-nam.
The women are Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, and Vietnamese national Doan Thi Huong, 28 and they are set to appear at a court in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday.
As the women bounded up to Mr Kim, they were being watched by a group of seated North Korean men, thought to have been their “handlers”, who subsequently boarded flights to various destinations.
Ms Aisyah and Ms Huong, meanwhile, were swiftly arrested, accused of carrying out this crime, although not planning it. They insist they thought it was all just a TV prank and made no plea when presented in court. But this is a crime that can carry the death sentence.
This narrative is well known and has been rehearsed in the media incessantly, but what really brought them to this place?
In the months before the killing, both women are thought to have been involved in the seedier side of Kuala Lumpur’s life.
Malaysian police have said Doan Thi Huong was working at an “entertainment outlet” and Siti Aisyah worked at the Flamingo hotel, a small establishment which has a massage parlour.
Through all the references to their time in Malaysia in the media is the implication that the two have been involved in the sex industry.
Doan Thi Huong appears to have had several Facebook pages under pseudonyms such as Ruby Ruby and Bella Tron Tron Bella. They show a woman both confident and carefree.
They, as well as immigration records, appear to show a pattern of coming and going from Malaysia and various other regional locations, such as Phnom Penh and South Korea.
Migrant workers, sex workers and those in the escort industry rub shoulders in Kuala Lumpur’s red light districts. It is an international scene with workers from places such as China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, a fair number of whom are thought to enter the country on tourist visas.
There is also a wide variety of work available for young women looking to earn money swiftly, taking roles such as guest relations officers in karaoke bars or in massage parlours or as escorts.
It is not clear if the women knew each other before the day of their arrests. Police claim they practised the manoeuvre several times in shopping malls, and they argue it was a calculated attack done in full knowledge of the consequences.
The lawyer for Ms Huong, who has met her only once, told the BBC there was nothing in particular that stands out about her.
And the journey of both these women to Kuala Lumpur is unexceptional. It comes via rural villages ringed with rice paddy fields and typical semi-rural upbringings.
Indonesian Siti Aisyah grew up in Serang, Tangerang. It is just two hours’ drive away from the high-rise buildings and glittering mega-malls of central Jakarta but it is another world.
Her parents are farmers who mainly sell potatoes and turmeric. The pace of life in Serang is slow, and people spend hours on their front porch talking to their neighbours.
Siti Aisyah is the youngest of three siblings. She went to a state primary school, a short walk down the road from her home. Teachers at the school remember her as a “quiet” and “polite girl”, and are all in shock at the turn of events.
When the BBC visited the concrete playground it was packed with students in their neat red and white uniforms. They all knew Siti Aisyah’s name.
Her education ended here as her parents could not afford to send her to high school.
Doan Thi Huong had a similar start in life many hundreds of miles away in Vietnam, in a small house nested at the corner of a paddy field in Nghia Binh village.
The one-storey brick house is built in the typical Vietnamese rural style, with a tiny courtyard surrounded by thin banana trees.
To get to the centre of the village, one has to brave the flimsy bamboo plank that serves as a bridge over a muddy creek between the house and the main road.
This mainly Catholic area of Nam Dinh province, 90km (55 miles) from Hanoi, boasts a large number of churches and not much else.
Most of the people here are farmers, working the exhausted soil of northern Vietnam, generation after generation.
As in poor villages everywhere, young people are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to get to the cities, make money and have a better life than their parents.
Ms Huong’s father is a Vietnam war veteran who was injured in Quang Tri in 1972 and now works as a guard at the local market. Her mother died in 2015 and he remarried a woman from the same village last year. She too works at the market, helping him to look after visitors’ bicycles and carts.
“Huong was never close to me,” he told the BBC, adding that his daughter, the youngest of five, was perhaps closer to her late mother who was ill and bed-bound for decades.
“Then she left home at 18 and we rarely saw her back.”
There have been no comments from the two women themselves. What is known about them comes from what their parents have told the media.
Siti Aisyah’s parents told local media that she was “hardworking and determined” and she wanted to get out of Serang even as a young girl.
She wanted to be able to provide for her family. Like millions of Indonesians from villagers like Serang, the only way she could do that was to go first to Jakarta and then overseas. It is a migrant worker’s dream that girls like her grow up with.
Doan Thi Huong went to a pharmaceutical college in Hanoi. But she then worked for a couple of “entertainment outlets” but never told them what exactly that entailed.
“She is a quiet, discreet person, very well behaved,” said Ms Huong’s older brother, Doan Van Binh. “Huong doesn’t seem to have much money but she would never steal even a toothpick from anybody!”
He did not realise that his little sister lived a very different life in the capital, Hanoi.
Ms Huong transformed herself from a modest country girl into an exuberant young woman who worked in some of Hanoi’s popular nightclubs and bars.
She made one appearance on the Vietnam Idol competition. It lasted 20 seconds but her plunging neckline made headlines in the national press.
She also used to work at a well-known bar-nightclub in central Hanoi called The Seventeen. The former manager of the bar, Kenny Bui, recalled that she was a good employee, simple but kind-hearted.
“She went out once with a bartender who I know very well and she paid for everything: his clothes, his food. She was very generous and never said anything bad even when other girls picked on her,” Mr Bui said.
Siti Aisyah married a businessman, Gunawan Hasyim, and they had one son together. They lived in the small house in the packed area of Tambora in West Jakarta.
Neighbour Emma Suela told the BBC she remembers her as “a very good girl. She really looked after her in-laws, she was very aware that she came from the village and from a poor background and she worked very hard”.
The couple divorced in 2012. According to a handwritten letter dated 1 February, signed by Siti Aisyah and Gunawan, the couple had opted for a divorce as they no longer “possessed the compatibility and harmony of husband and wife”.
Emma says she and all the neighbours were shocked by the divorce and even more by her arrest.
“I am completely in shock. It just doesn’t make sense and is not the Aisyah I know. On television she looks really different, much more made-up, more beautiful and fancy. It’s all very strange,” she said.
Her former father-in-law Lian Kiong told local media that the last time she came home was on 28 January, less than two weeks before the incident.
“She came and stayed for the night. She spent the night with my grandson and left the next day,” he said.
After The Seventeen closed in 2014, Ms Huong is believed to have worked as promotion girl and escort. Pictures of her wearing bikinis standing next to cars and in swimming pools were found on Vietnamese social media and internet forums. She dyed her hair and went on numerous overseas trips with foreign clients.
But she was was known for dating foreign men, mostly Koreans, as the bar was frequented by Korean clients. One of her numerous Facebook pages indicates that she even made a trip to Jeju island, the popular South Korean tourist destination.
Siti Aisyah’s family, on the other hand, insist she didn’t speak Korean and had no connection to the country.
Yet there has been a vast amount of speculation about the nature of the relationship between the two women and the North Korean men they were associated with, now believed to be spies who allegedly orchestrated the killing of Kim Jong-nam.
Siti Aisyah’s mother Benah says her daughter told her she had been offered work in Malaysia as a model. “She said she wanted to go to Malaysia for filming on a show to make people surprised by spraying perfume on somebody else,” she said.
“She was offered a job by someone to become an advertisement model for perfume. And she’s an innocent girl that did it because it was good money.”
“I’m asking and begging for help so that my daughter is not punished, as I believe she is innocent,” her father Asria said when he heard the news.
Indonesian migrant groups have been vocal in insisting that Siti Aisyah, if she is found to be involved, is only a victim duped by more sophisticated and powerful forces.
“Her story is very similar to what has happened to many other migrants who were tricked by drug syndicates. They are caught and viewed as criminals but they are really victims.
“Half of the Indonesian migrants now on death row in Malaysia are such victims who were used as couriers by drug syndicates at airports,” Anis Hisayat from Migrant Care says.
But Malaysian police have long insisted that the women are very likely to have been far more complicit than they have so far claimed. They have said the women must have known what they were doing and were told to wash their hands afterwards.
For now, the two women are at the mercy of the Malaysian courts. – BBC with additional reporting by Woon King Chai in Malaysia.
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