Officials say they are doing what they can to supply food, medicine and other essential items to residents, most of whom live in makeshift tents on the remnants of their former homes.
WE LIVE WITHOUT WALLS AND DOORS – JUST UNDER TENTS. IT IS VERY COLD FOR US AT NIGHT....
THE smell of fish tinged with ash blew in from the riverfront, just a hundred metres away, as residents of Russey Keo district’s Chraing Chamres II commune lined up in front of a small table manned by a Phnom Penh Municipal Police officer on Monday afternoon.
In addition to the loss of homes and thousands of dollars’ worth of possessions, the assembled residents lost their family books and government identification to the fire that burned through their commune early Thursday morning and destroyed 243 homes.
The police officer sat, dutifully transcribing, as family heads registered with him to replace their documents. Because the local police station and commune hall were also lost in the blaze, the officer was reduced to working in a vacant lot, but he had already re-registered more than 100 families out of 452 in the community and declined to break for an interview.
“We’re getting a headache with these things,” he said.
Those waiting for their time with the officer, some of whom said they had been living in the predominantly Cham Muslim fishing community for almost 30 years, said efforts to salvage their identification had been in vain.
“When the fire blew into my house, I grabbed my family book, my family’s identification cards and other documents to take to my neighbour’s house, but the fire spread there as well. Everything was lost,” said Mot Voeu, 52.
Officials are still at a loss to explain the source of the flames, which left almost 2,000 people homeless, though residents say it originated in the home of a local medicine seller who fled the scene and later blamed the fire on his Cham Muslim neighbours. The seller has since gone into hiding, 70-year-old resident Ny Mann said.
Young men wielding sledgehammers and pickaxes hacked away at the remnants of the many structures gutted by the fire, while children and elderly residents sat amid the rubble under makeshift tents provided by the Cambodian Red Cross (CRC) on the sites where their homes had been.
Fah Maryah, 41, said she was forced to stay under her tent around the clock to prevent scavengers from taking the few possessions left at the site of her former home. She and her neighbours have been sleeping on cots and wooden tables covered by blankets, using pieces of broken wooden furniture to feed charcoal fires.
“We live without walls and doors – just under tents,” she said. “It is very cold for us at night, so now many children are starting to get fevers.”
Officials from the CRC have thus far led the push to help victims, and Neth Sophana, the CRC’s director of disaster management, pledged to distribute mosquito nets, blankets, fish sauce and 50 kilograms of rice to each of the affected families. The CRC is working to recruit more donors for the effort, Neth Sophana said.
Russey Keo district Deputy Governor Ly Rosamy said the government was aware of the concerns in the community and hoped to address them within the next few days.
“We know that some people have become sick, so we will send health officials to the area to examine the affected residents and provide medicine to them,” she said.
For the moment, many residents said, they are relying on informal support from friends and relatives in Phnom Penh.
“My teacher raised money for me and other children in order to replace our books and school supplies,” said Nach Ny, 13, as children raced home from school in the narrow streets, hopping over levelled walls and playing amid the rubble.
Firefighters had difficulty containing the blaze on Thursday because their trucks could not access the riverside warren, where narrow streets limit road traffic to motorbikes only. Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema said Saturday, however, that during the rebuilding effort the government will construct a wide road linked to National Road 5 to prevent similar disasters. Those affected by the road project will be given plots of land on the other side of the river, the governor added.
Though they did not doubt the wisdom of this project, some residents said they would be reluctant to leave the fishing community where they make their living.
“I will wait to see if my house will be completely taken for the road, but I hope that it will just be a few metres wide and I won’t have any problems,”
said 35-year-old Sann Pov, who worried that there would be no ferries to take her across the river at 1am, when she wakes up to haul fish to a market in Kampong Speu province.
Neth Vantha, director of the Phnom Penh Fire Department, said residents of such densely packed communities must be especially cautious at this time of year.
“We always tell people to keep fire extinguishers on hand because fires can break at any time in the dry season,” he said.
Fah Maryah said, though, that most villagers were away from their homes at the time of the fire, earning a livelihood that is now in doubt.
“I am appealing for more aid to our village. We have no money to buy things or start our business again,” she said.