I visited the Borei Keila relocation sites yesterday, and was truly disturbed by what I saw. The term “relocation site” evokes neutral images, perhaps more akin to FEMA trailers or temporary housing, somewhere not-like-home but at least adequate for basic human needs.
The Borei Keila evictees relocation site at Phnom Bath is not adequate for basic human needs.
100 families were scraping in the dust yesterday at the relocation site, located at the foot of Udong mountain, Cambodia’s post-Angkorian royal capital. The evictees are currently living in tents, in basic shacks, and in hastily-constructed sheds. The sounds of hammering, sawing, and low-budget construction by villagers fills the air, along with the shrieks of children.
The graceful spires of the old empire’s royal temples are clearly visible from the camp.
Only 60 of the 100 families interned here – and interned is the appropriate word – have been “recognized” by the Phan Imex development company as legitimate land recipents.
There was no natural shade nearby, no toilet facilities, and water of dubious quality from a nearby well. A medical center is reputed to be nearby, but no medical presence was evident. Small bags of pills laid on the ground, and human waste was almost everywhere.
A small army of children roamed the facility, wearing dirty and ripped clothing, some with recent and seemingly-untreated wounds. Most of the residents were women with young children, the sick, the mentally ill, and the old. Pregnant women feared especially for the health of their children to be.
A woman with diabetes had not had insulin in days, and was suffering from severe swelling as she sat on a rough wooden pavilion, shaded by a blanket. Human rights NGO Licadho has been allowed to distribute supplies on the scene, but there is only so much they can do.
Sam Rainsy party lawmaker and human rights activist Mu Sochua arrived at the site with a loudspeaker, asking trepidaitus villagers to tell their stories. Many seemed initially reluctant, wary of publicly expressing their grievances, and were shoved by the group to take the stand alone.
“This is the Cambodian way,” our driver and translator commented. “If they talk all together, they aren’t scared.”
The forgotten families stories all were similar. One man had resided in Borei Keila for 13 years, near the home of the commune chief—but the commune chief claimed he’d never seen him before.
A moto taxi driver, the man compared Phan Imex’s action to the Pol Pot era, which he was old enough to remember clearly. The comparison, extreme as it is, seem apt.
This was yet another time in Cambodian history where families were herded away from their homes to desolate scraps of countryside, where inequality was never adequately explained.
“If the village chief says he doesn’t know you, they don’t have to give you houses,” our translator said. “Maybe they paid off the chief.”
Others said the company demanded from $1000 to $3000 dollars for a slot in the eight apartment buildings the Phan Imex company had built for the Borei Keila evictees. The company had promised to build ten buildings, but went back on its deal: 300 families were left in the lurch.
“Our husbands are back in Phnom Penh,” many of the women said, carrying babies and small children with them. There is nowhere for these people to work here at Phnom Bath, a good 60 kilometers from the Borei Keila evictees original homes in the heart of Phnom Penh.
Most were formerly employed in the lowest rungs of Phnom Penh’s economy, subsisting off the scraps of a growing city – trash pickers, metal collecters, and motorcycle taxi drivers. There is nothing for them to do here, in a dusty and desolate field.
The 40 unrecognized families claim to anyone who listens that they have records and papers stating they lived in Borei Keila, but the documents were destroyed along with their homes last Tuesday, leaving them with no time to grab their possessions from the rubble.
Confused children haven’t been to school since the January 3rd evictions, and don’t know when they will return. “I want to go back to school, but I don’t know where it is here,” one ten year old boy said. He used to attend the Chaktomuk High School in downtown Phnom Penh, across the street from Borei Keila.
His story reflects that of many of the children who have been shunted away from their former homes, their school-clothes and books destroyed along with their apartments.
The haves-and-have-nots verbally squared off as Mu Sochua spoke at the site yesterday, as those who were given tiny plots of land by the company (and were, as some suspected, perhaps paid off) traded insults with those who were, in technical terms, merely squatting.
The arbitrary nature of Phan Imex’s handouts has led to division within this small and traumatized group of evictees. Some with money, connections, or the luck to have held onto their documents have been given a plot of land, some rice, and even a bicycle: others from the same community, long-term neighbors, have been given nothing.
The reasons for this gross inequality are unclear to everyone—and that means jealousy is just about inevitable.
Ms Sochua attempted to address this division to the crowd, telling them that they will be stronger if they work together, if they attempt to overlook their inequal treatment by a common enemy. She told them they had a human right to protest, that they shouldn’t beg.
“There are two communities in this community, and it’s ruthless,” a shaken-looking Mu Sochua told us after she addressed the crowd.
Divide-and-conquer tactics seem to have done their dirty work on this desperate group of people.
The 60 families who are not “recognized” by Phan Imex truly have nowhere to go. Protesting has got them nowhere.
On Thursday, 24 women and children were detained by authorities and sent to the Prey Speu Social Affairs Center—a center deemed “nothing more than an extra-judicial detention facility” in a statement released jointly by 10 human rights NGOs operating in the Kingdom.
The families who have not been provided for by Phan Imex are being swept around the rug. Their only option, once they have been kicked out of their squatters spots at Phnom Bath—which will likely occur soon—will be homelessness.
Their children will be unable to go back to school, and their health will suffer as they attempt to scrape out a living, or find somewhere else to live. Typhoid and malaria are common here: without adequate toilet facilities, or mosquito nets to sleep under, it seems these evictees will be especially vulnerable when the rainy season comes around again.
Phan Imex is perpetuating the dark cycle of poverty in Cambodia, and worst of all, both the government and international entities have done nothing to stop it.
The US Embassy has thus far ignored the legitimate complaints of the Borei Keila evictees who camped out on their doorstep for days, and submitted an official petition—and so have the other Western nations these forgotten families have begged for help.