FLEEING THE TOWN
Garment workers go to work with their possessions, not intending to return home: Sihanoukville, Dec. 21.
PHEAP is on the phone checking with her relatives in Phnom Penh.
"Allo? Allo bong... Allo! Yes, it's me," says the woman angrily. "Why
didn't you call me back last night?... The children are going first... probably tomorrow."
It's a similiar conversation across Sihanoukville as families try and find accommodation
with friends and relatives away from the seaside town and the poison they fear is
in the water and air.
A cleaner at the Nasa Hotel stamps her feet in frustration as her daughters follow
her while she makes phone calls. As soon as she has finished neighbors gather round
to hear the news whether she is one of the lucky ones leaving.
Some carry babies, others stand around, some find a seat on the ground, but all are
talking about the poisonous waste - Vithiyuk sakam - that is rapidly gaining
an apocalyptic reputation.
"People say Vithiyuk sakam is more dangerous than Aids," says one port
worker who is thinking of sending his family to Kampot province.
"Oh, Khan's son eventually fell down when he was standing this morning,"
says another woman.
Anything that happens to the people of Sihanoukville - head aches, itches, fever,
coughs - are all suspected of being caused by the toxic waste from Taiwan.
Locals complain that they had no idea what symptoms to look for to know if they have
been poisoned. "I don't know why I feel itchy on my arms," a moto-driver
Hysteria or genuine symptoms? It is becoming increasingly difficult to be certain
because rumors of what the waste actually is are rampaging through the town.
Some people say it is Vithiyuk sakam - radiation. Others say Kak samnal nucle-air
- nuclear waste, while the third term in popular use is baroat - which
can mean mercury but is also used for a number of other chemical compounds, particularly
those silver in color. The term baraot is causing some confusion.
"It is very dangerous if that waste is Vithiyuk sakam or Kak samnal nucle-air.
If it is baraot that will be no problem," said one of the port officials who
works for the billing office.
A market vendor gave another meaning of baroat, that being cyanide which is used
in gold and jewelry-making. He claims cyanide is not dangerous for people - a
view currently at odds with medical and scientific thought throughout the rest of
He cited as evidence gold smiths who have never suffered the effects of working with
Meanwhile mystery diseases are continuing to affect residents.
"I feel dizzy and have difficulty breathing," one who lived near the reservoir
complained. Many of her neighbors complain of the same symptoms. Another woman says
she has been partially paralyzed and has been suffering diarrhea.
Another constant complaint is that the poor people cannot flee the town. "The
rich families have already gone," says one angry demonstrator.
Back in Pheap's house attention soon turns to the radio which is broadcasting more
news of the toxic waste. This time it is an interview with a local environmental
expert about the dangers of the waste. "It is very dangerous for our people
if the waste is radioactive," he says, adding "it is very dangerous if
this waste is mercury."
One man complained that the expert only talked about "if" it was radioactive
or "if" it was mercury. He wanted something more definite and left in disgust
when the broadcast finished.
It is a common sentiment in the town. People want to know what the waste is? Is it
dangerous? Will they get sick?
Meanwhile reports from the radio, newspapers and the grapevine are uniting to form
a terrifying vision for the locals, even media appeals for calm seem only to push
the hysteria higher.
"This is really very dangerous. That's why the news is officially broadcast
in the radio," one local says.
Many are now looking for a way out. Those without relatives in Phnom Penh say they
will go to the nearby provinces of Takeo and Kampot.
This is a boom time for taxis and trains. All are full and fares are being increased.
"I am afraid the train can not pull the wagons full of people," a worker
near the railway station said.
One police official who sent his wife and children to Phnom Penh says he stopped
his three children from going to school because it was pointless for them to attend.
"How can I keep them here? Everybody had left, even some of their teachers."
Local industry is suffering.
About 200 workers from a shoe factory had already packed their bags and headed off.
Efforts to get their wages before going were knocked back by the owner who wanted
them to keep working.
But for other people the whole controversy is passing them by - they still use
water from the reservoir or wells and just boil it, hoping it will make it safe.