Just north of the Olympic Stadium in the capital’s Prampi Makara district is a community that has been literally falling apart for the past two years. On January 3, 2012, more than 300 families were displaced at Borei Keila after the government cleared the site to make way for a construction project which has yet to materialise. The inhabitants now live either in makeshift huts stitched together from scrap and tarps, or in a single dilapidated tenement that survived the destruction of the original neighbourhood.
While some agreed to move to relocation sites in Kandal province and the outskirts of Phnom Penh, 117 families opted to stand their ground on the land they insist is theirs.
Phan Imex, the company that was granted approval to develop the site, had promised to build 10 apartment buildings on the site to house the evictees. But the company went bankrupt in 2010 after only completing eight buildings, leaving the remaining residents out of a home. While the residents claim to have land titles, and Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong vowed to resolve the disputes when he took office last May, the system has yet to provide solutions for the dozens of families who have chosen to stay at Borei Keila.
The residents frequently make their plight heard at protests in Phnom Penh. Last Monday, the evictees tried to join Beehive Radio director Mam Sonando’s rally but were blocked from leaving the site by security forces.
Sou Em, a 58-year-old garment worker from Kampong Thom who protests regularly, lives in a shack made of tin, wood and plastic. Although her children moved back to their homeland, Em said she vows to stay put until her land title is recognised. “I will not go back to Kampong Thom, because everything I have is here. The house I should have is here.”
Tim Sakmony, a land rights activist in her mid-60s who first moved to Borei Keila in 1995, spent almost four months in Prey Sar prison in late 2012 following her participation in protests. She was convicted of making false statements to secure an apartment at Borei Keila for her disabled son on the same day that fellow activist and cellmate Yorm Bopha was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of intentional violence, although Sakmony’s sentence was suspended.
After more than a year out of prison, she lives in a one-room flat with four other people in Borei Keila, where she raises chickens through a hole in the wall to make ends meet. It is a step up from the tent she had lived in before the room became available, which was even better than the staircase she had lived underneath before then.
“Before the government took the land, people lived easily,” Sakmony said. “Of course we were poor, but it was fine.” Like most Borei Keila residents, she said she has a land title that the government does not recognise.
“We feel very hurt, we feel very bad here.”
Without a definite place to call home, she said that her family suffers.
“The house is the most important thing for the family,” she said.
When news came that her old house was to be destroyed, she said that there was nothing to do but protest.
“The first choice we made after the government destroyed our house was to protest.”
The future, she said, is bleak.
“When we think of the future, there is no good living conditions.”
Ourn Kong Pineat, Sakmony’s 47-year-old son and an army veteran, lives with the family but is unable to work due to a shrapnel wound in the head from the 1980s war that left him disabled. His twin children, a boy and a girl born in 2000, lost their mother shortly after their birth, leaving Sakmony as the family’s primary breadwinner.
Sakmony’s apartment block is the only permanent structure still in use from the original Borei Keila neighbourhood. She said, however, that the government tries to coax the residents into leaving by making it as unlivable as possible. Utilities have been turned off, and the railings on the balcony have been removed by the government, she said.
Yos Pov, a 53-year-old scavenger from Svay Rieng, has lived at Borei Keila since 2000.
She said she is relatively happy to live in a wooden shack with a tin roof because she had lived under the adjacent apartment building until five months before.
She had been a fried noodle vendor, but was forced to sell her cart to pay off debts. She now collects metal waste in a push-cart. She lives with three children and her husband, who is also a scavenger.
“My business is not good, and it is very hard to earn money for food,” she said.
The site, she said, is no place to live, with the stench of human waste constantly in the air. Diarrhoea, especially among children, is rampant.