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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Capital's worst slum fires make thousands homeless

Capital's worst slum fires make thousands homeless


Phnom Penh experienced its worst slum fires November 26-28 when 16,500 people

were made homeless in 36 hours.

Chhbar Ampoe burns on the night of Nov. 27, only 36 hours after another slum fire nearer the city center. Ninety percent of Chhbar Ampoe's residents are ethnic Vietnamese.

The municipality has relocated all the victims of the first fire and more than half

of the second to two sites well outside the city.

NGOs criticized the haste of the municipality's response saying the relocation sites

are not habitable in their present state.

Police insist both fires were accidental, although eyewitness accounts of the second

fire at Chhbar Ampoe commune November 27, in which one person died and 5,000 were

made homeless, suggest that blaze at least was deliberate. There was plenty of speculation

that the same could be said of the first blaze. Phnom Penh's governor, Chea Sophara,

explicitly stated that the fires were not deliberately set, then forbade speculation

- on pain of arrest - about their causes.

The first fire November 26 destroyed around 2,250 homes in Bassac commune behind

the Bassac Theater; the second started the following evening and burned almost 1,000

homes along a 500-meter riverfront stretch of the Chhbar Ampoe commune near Monivong

Bridge. United Nations Centre for Human Settlement (UNCHS) estimates 16,500 people

were made homeless.

Police said the first fire was caused by children play-ing with matches, while the

second resulted from an exploding gas bottle in the shack of a man named Thanh, who

died in the blaze. The Post spoke to Thanh's neighbors who said that explanation

was impossible.

The residents of Chhbar Ampoe had an alternative answer. One said he watched as men

in a boat shot "flaming torches" at the settlement. Standing in the charred

ruins of the commune's Buddhist temple, the witness, whose name has been withheld,

said he saw one fireball hit Thanh's hut.

"I saw a boat, and then I saw fire flying into the air. I don't know what boat

it was, but it was very fast, made of wood with an engine," he said. "In

the dark I saw the flame fly in from the boat in the middle of the river. The flame

was very long with a fireball. The fireball landed on [Thanh's] house and it caught

fire. I didn't hear any explosion - the noise sounded like the whoosh of a firework

flying up into the air."

When asked whether he was able to make out any details of those on the boat, he said

he could not as it was dark and the boat was in the middle of the river. He said

the boat was traveling from south to north along the river. "When I saw the

flames, I ran away," he said.

Other residents agreed the fire started at Thanh's hut. They said it was preceded

by the whine of fireworks and insisted there was the sound of an explosion. Twenty-one-year-old

Sok Hay said a "long fire flame" had flown in from the direction of the

pagoda.

The morning after: Picking through the rubble at Bassac.

"I heard the explosion and came out," said Hay. "Then my mother screamed

that the house next to Thanh's house was on fire. I don't know who fired the flames."

When the Post put the police explanation to Thanh's neighbors, they said that was

not possible. Thanh, they said, was too poor to afford rice, and was fed by his neighbors.

None of his neighbors was able to afford gas for cooking and Thanh was financially

worse off than any of them.

"How could he afford to buy gas?" asked a neighbor. "None of us can

even afford gas; we all use charcoal."Another, Nguyen Dam, says she brought

Thanh food every day.

"A week ago he was too sick to cook and I started giving him cooked food,"

she said. "He had no money, he had no kitchen, he had no money even to buy rice."

Other pointers include the fact that no one else was injured by flying metal, a common

injury in gas bottle explosions, and neighbors' testimony that Thanh's bamboo-walled

shack was not blown apart. A neighbor saw Thanh's hut on fire and described "firework

flower" explosions as the hut slowly burned to the ground.

Although it is unlikely that the cause of the second fire will be conclusively proven,

there is a cold logic to what residents' believe was its cause: walking to Thanh's

shack on the riverside and setting it ablaze would have been too dangerous since

the way out was characterized by narrow, busy roads which would have made escape

difficult.

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