Years after their eviction from central Phnom Penh, families continue to trickle back into the city from their relocation sites on the city’s outskirts. They search for cheap rental rooms instead of houses like the ones they were driven out of, in some cases, by bulldozers and baton-wielding policemen.
Many of those who have not returned say they cannot afford to because the loss of their home and employment has left them stranded in poverty.
Yan El, 56, lives near Oudong Mountain in Kandal province’s Ponhea Leu district in a village still known as “Blue Tent Community”. She had been a vendor in Dey Krahom village in the city centre before police and employees of 7NG Company forcibly evicted its residents at dawn on January 24, 2009. Some families received housing in Damnak Trayoeng village, about 20 kilometres from the city centre, while others – like Yan El – set up camp under blue tarpaulins along a road near the village in Dangkor district waiting for homes.
Families were eventually given four by six metre plots of land in Phnom Bat commune, at the foot of Oudong Mountain. They built their homes themselves, with pieces of wood, tin and palm leaves for roofs. Two years later, most of these shelters have been abandoned, and others still look temporary or dilapidated.
“When I lived in Dey Krahom I was self-employed,” Yan El said last week inside her hut. “It was easy to support myself then. My daughter also sold fruit, making at least 10,000 riel per day,” she said.
She lost everything in the first eviction, and then all hope when she was relocated a second time, she said. “I just keep getting poorer from day to day. There is no work here.”
The lack of work drove most residents of Blue Tent Community back to Phnom Penh, but they had to sell their land in order to afford the move. “Their last choice was to sell their land to rich people, and use the money to rent a room in Phnom Penh and look for work,” Yan El explained.
Because their land plots were so small, they sold for between US$200 and $350 each, she said. She summed up the consequences of the government’s development efforts as taking the homes and land of villagers instead of raising their living standards.
Blue Tent village chief Va Savoeun said that only about 120 of the 465 families who had been relocated to the site in 2009 remained. Most had sold their land and returned to Phnom Penh. “It was impossible to stop them from selling their land, because they had nothing to do here,” he said.
Families evicted from a neighbourhood near Preah Monivong Hospital in 2008 received bigger land plots but suffered the same fate. The village they formed, Trapaing Krasaing, is unlike others in the commune of the same name in Dangkor district. Only about 20 of the 168 families relocated there remain, 38-year-old Top Sarth said. Most had been families of retired soldiers and police. They received seven by 14 metre plots and $500 in cash. Some families left as soon as they finished building their homes because they had no way to earn money, he said.
In some cases, the results of the evictions have been tragic. “One man suffered a nervous disorder after he was relocated here. He lost his home, and then his mother died and his wife died. Now he begs for money to buy wine. He can’t stop drinking,” Top Sarth said.
The 20 families who still live in the village do so because they have no choice, he said, explaining that they cannot afford to rent rooms in Phnom Penh. They feel powerless and that their lives are flowing away from them, he said.
“Government officials have not visited us since we were relocated here, not even once,” he said.
Ly Nareth is quick to recall his family’s eviction from Sambok Chab village in Tonle Bassac commune in 2006. More than 1,500 families were forcibly evicted and trucked on the same day to a swampy field about 25 kilometres from the city centre, in Dangkor district, called Andong.
Standing in front of his home, amid floodwaters that have yet to recede, Ly Nareth, 18, says what he misses most is school.
“I was 13 when we were evicted,” he said. “I had to stop school because there was none here.” An NGO that supports children offered him a chance to study, but he needed to support his family, he explained. “If I go to school, when I go home, my rice pot is empty, so I had to stop studying and work as a shoeshine boy in Phnom Penh to support my family.”
He rides a bicycle back and forth to the city every day, starting out at about 5am and returning at dusk, he said.
Some evicted communities have fared better. Residents of a community whose 32 families included people with HIV/AIDS were evicted in 2009 from the inner city community of Borei Keila to a village in Dangkor district’s Prey Veng commune. When they first arrived in Tuol Sambo village, they had cramped houses that were too hot because they were made from metal. New housing was provided by NGOs, following an outcry about the creation of an “AIDS village” and concerns about the health of its residents.
Still, resident Suon Davy has a grim view of the government’s concern for its citizens. “They do not care about us. They just want our land,” he said.
On December 10, the legal and human rights section of Phnom Penh Municipal Hall responded to calls from NGOs to declare the city an eviction-free zone. It dismissed reports of human rights violations.
“City Hall has a duty to get state land back from people who took it over illegally. Villagers relocated have been provided with fair compensation,” a statement from the municipality said.
Shoeshine boy Ly Nareth said that sometimes he pedals by the land where Sambok Chab village used to be because he still misses his home. Most of the land remains empty, except for an amusement park. He said he pauses by the area, looks at the land, and tries to remember a better life.