Just a few weeks after her house was bulldozed at Borei Keila last January, grandmother Both Choun was told she would not be granted land at her new home, a relocation site at the foot of Kandal province’s Oudong Mountain.
The documents the 70-year-old needed to prove she was entitled to a plot at the site – compensation from Borei Keila developer Phan Imex – had been destroyed with her house.
“I felt so angry when they demolished my home and sent me here – and even angrier when they denied me land,” she told the Post last week.
Choun, languishing under a small tarp in a hot, barren field 45 kilometres from the capital, faced eviction for a second time.
A year on, the 70-year-old still lives in that tiny tent and rarely sees her orphaned grandchildren, two HIV-positive girls who lasted just weeks at Oudong – where they could not get medicine – before returning to Borei Keila to sleep under stairs with their aunt.
But things are looking brighter for Choun, who along with 30 other families has moved her tarp to adjoining land bought by US-based Christian non-profit organisation Rock Foundation Cambodia (RFC).
“We feel happy that the generous people bought that land to distribute to us,” Choun said.
The families now have access to proper toilets, their own plots and look forward to RFC building houses for them.
“Once I have a house, I will be able to spend more time in Phnom Penh with my grandchildren without losing land I have out here,” Choun said.
In more than a year since the violent Borei Keila evictions, RFC has built about 40 modest but livable homes on plots of land that Phan Imex gave evictees.
“All the houses you see have been built with the support of the Christian group and generous individuals from Singapore and Australia,” village representative Touch Khon said, adding that Phan Imex had given 108 of 140 families a plot.
Brett Medlin, founder and executive director of RFC, said his organisation, which is registering as an international NGO, plans to build 60 more houses – 30 on 4,300 square metres of adjoining land it bought for $12,000.
“[The evictees] were in a completely hopeless situation living in plastic tarps. They were just waiting on the company to evict them a second time. It was a heartbreaking situation,” he said. “Now there is energy at the site. Simple hope has been restored.”
RFC, which has assisted about 200 families at four sites in Cambodia during the past two years, has built houses at Oudong for $625 each – paying villagers to help them – and is raising funds to construct more.
“We plan to use the remaining land to build a community centre and school,” Medlin said, adding that RFC would also provide about 100 more toilets as part of a project with the UN.
He also said RFC planned to help villagers set up small enterprises.
Koe Sreang, 34, a father of five, said villagers had been told a church would be built and the school would offer a Christian curriculum.
Sreang, a Buddhist, said this was something that did not worry him.
“If the Christian guy opens the school in our community, we are happy to send our children to learn, and we don’t care if they teach them about Jesus and Christianity,” he said. “I believe in Buddhism, but it’s up to my children to decide what they believe.”
The father of five said he was more concerned with making enough money to feed his family.
Formerly a construction worker in Phnom Penh, Sreang cannot afford to trek to the capital each day and has spent the past year scavenging for snails and cutting morning glory near the relocation site – work that earns him no more than $1.25 a day.
It’s such conditions that have led to some evictees moving back to the capital, said resident Koe Vuthy, 47.
“Right now, my family’s living conditions are better here compared with a year ago when Phan Imex evicted us and sent us here,” she said. “But we still have a problem with food shortages, because we have no way to make money out here.”
To deal with these problems, Choun said, villagers need help from more organisations.
“I call for local and international NGOs and other generous people to help us establish a clean water supply and power and to help us start a small handicraft initiative so we can sell to visitors at the nearby temple,” she said.
Phan Imex owner Suy Sophan could not be reached.
To contact the reporter on this story: Khouth Sophak Chakrya at [email protected]
Shane Worrell at [email protected]