Land Grabs and Misery at Borei Keila: A Photo Essay

I wrote this a while back but held onto it – it’s up at the Faster Times now. Mirroring it over here since I have a bit more space for photos on my blog.

Cambodia is in the throes of another land-grab drama in the early days of 2012, after the Borei Keila slum development was suddenly razed on the morning of January 3rd. The wealthy Phan Imex development company had promised the slum’s residents 10 alternate apartment buildings to make up for their soon-to-be destroyed homes: instead, the company built only 8 facilities.

Many Borei Keila residents fought back against riot police, in a fray that lasted half a day and saw plentiful injures on both sides. But the villagers couldn’t hold out long: 300 families soon found themselves out on the streets.

The luckiest among them were eventually allowed to take plots of land in desolate and far-off relocation sites, with hygiene and safety standards worse than those found in many refugee camps. The unlucky are now homeless, roaming the streets of Phnom Penh and asking for help from anyone who will listen. Despite protests outside Western embassies, no international help is forthcoming for the abandoned of Borei Keila.

This is a photo essay about the Borei Keila site itself, which I managed to get into after my friend Alex, who lives near the site, texted me to tell me the police had finally moved away from the area. Cops barred my previous attempts to get into the site, after some heart-wrenching photographs were released to the public from the January 3rd violence.

“They tore down one building and they’re tearing down another,” he told me. My boyfriend and I immediately headed over to the site.

I scrambled around on rebar, tile, and brick, and took some photos of the collapsed apartment building. Many random possessions—bras, stuffed animals, clothing items—were strewn among the bricks. Some of these things probably belonged to the protesters I’ve spoken with outside the US Embassy.

This woman was trash-picking the wreckage of the apartment complex. I don’t know if she lived there or not.

It is at times difficult to avoid the Stuffed Animal Poignantly Sits Amid Wreckage photograph. In any case, it tells the story.

These kids live at Borei Keila and were interested in me and my camera. I’ve heard the apartment complexes they are standing in front of are slated for destruction in the near future. I hope they have somewhere to go.

This woman was hanging laundry outside her apartment. I think this complex will be taken down soon as well. As my boyfriend pointed out, the hanging trees make the complex look almost like an Angkor-era temple.

Change-agent. Friendly construction workers. Like they have a say in this one way or the other. Some of these guys probably live in very similar conditions.

As my boyfriend and I went through my photos, we stopped at this shot of kids playing outside the still-standing complex. “They were playing some game involving shooting each other,” I told him.
“They were playing riot police against villagers,” he said. “Look at the cardboard shields.”

I’m almost certain he was right. These three kids, after all, saw one of Phnom Penh’s most violent housing riots in recent years on Tuesday. Cops armed with riot shields shot rubber bullets at residents armed with stones and Molotov cocktails. Many were injured on both sides.
Why wouldn’t they decide to emulate the most terrifying – and exciting – event they’ve probably ever seen?

This kid was playing with a toy excavator extremely similar to the one taking down what may have been his former home. The irony was probably lost on him, but I doubt it was lost on the small group of hard-faced adults standing nearby.

The Borei Keila site is directly behind a bus station where there are always at least 30 foreign tourists having a drink and awaiting the next bus out. They probably have no idea what has happened to the former residents of Borei Keila. I like to hope they’ll pick up a local English paper at some point during their visit here and realize what was going on literally behind their backs.

A food vendor has set up shop outside Borei Keila, and a couple of families seem to have taken up residence on mats set up in this sandy corridor, in lieu of anywhere better to go. This man was selling eggs. He didn’t look very happy to see me.

I wish it was easier to explain sometimes why I’m taking pictures of other people’s pain.

8 thoughts on “Land Grabs and Misery at Borei Keila: A Photo Essay

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