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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Shacks, rooftops... we'll call it home

Shacks, rooftops... we'll call it home

"It's almost impossible to live here," says Ouk Sinat, 28, with a glance toward

her two young sons. "I really, really want to move out, but..." Her quiet voice,

with a trace of real pain, fades into silence. She doesn't bother to state the

obvious - she has nowhere better to go.

For now, like for the past 14

years, Sinat's address will remain the same: No. 40GD, Bandos Vichea, downtown

Phnom Penh - two small rooms, a tiny kitchen and bathroom in a monstrous,

crumbling apartment building surrounded by rubbish, sewage, flies and

rats.

Living the impossible is a daily experience for Sinat, like many of

the rest of Phnom Penh's 100,000 squatters - about 10 per cent of the capital's

population.

In many ways, she is better than some. She has a solid roof

over her head, reasonably regular water and electricity supplies, and just

enough money to survive from her job at a textile factory and from her mother

living in the United States.

After surviving the Khmer Rouge years,

marriage at age 14 and later divorce, she still has her health, her sons

Sovannarith, 7, and Sorannara, 12, and her pride.

Her apartment is

usually as spotless as its bare, black walls and cracked ceiling will allow, and

she herself impeccably dressed.

But outside her door lies a reality -

rubbish, stench, the threat of disease and theft - which spares her little time

for contentment or hope for her children's future.

It's a reality which

makes So Kim Leang, who lives down their corridor with her family of seven,

loathe to let her children outside her apartment.

"I really worry every

day about my children's health," says Leang, who has lived there for 10 years.

"The place is dirty and it makes many people very easy to get

sick.

"Before, people used to spend the weekend cleaning the grounds for

the kids to play on, but not anymore.

"Now I have to lock up my children

in the room or let them play in the corridor, except when they go

school."

Downstairs from Sinat and Leang's apartments is a sight which

everyone agrees is disgusting but no-one, it seems, is prepared to do anything

about.

Lining either side of Bandos Vichea - a burnt-out old apartment

building which stretches maybe half a mile alongside Samdech Sothearos Blvd near

the Basaac River - are years of accumulated rubbish and sewage.

The

stench is overwhelming in places, as flies hover overhead, rats and frogs dart

around, and small children scavenge and squat to go to the toilet.

"I've

got used to the smell," laughs 68-year-old Mao On, who lives in a tiny concrete

alcove under one of the building's stairways.

As she talks, sewage drops

from an open pipe out of the building above, joining a flow of filth toward the

rear of the building's grounds.

"It's disgusting but I don't have

anywhere to move to. I have no money," On says.

The apartment building is

home to an unknown number of people, but there must be more than 1000. Outside,

on either side, are dozens more recent arrivals living in makeshift wooden or

thatch shacks.

Many of those who live in the building blame the new

squatters outside for the mess.

"People dump rubbish outside their

houses," says On. "There is no proper sewage [system] or toilets. They just go

in the rubbish or wherever they want."

Sam, a 45-year-old Kampuchea Krom

who sells eggs from one of the food stalls around the building, says: "Many

people get sick from fever, typhoid and other things."

She, like many who

live in the building, say they take their rubbish to a nearby depot for Phnom

Penh Municipality garbage collectors.

But when the Post visited, a

regular stream of rubbish - and of sewage from open pipes - flowed out of the

building to add to the piles below.

Asked what the municipality

authorities do for the squatters, most reply with a firm "Ot ay" [definitely

nothing].

They purchase water from private vendors, who pump it around

the building, and electricity is provided via official or unofficial

lines.

Clearing the mounds of rubbish around the building is unheard of -

the municipality's rubbish department has told residents it is a health hazard

they will not deal with.

The residents, like most of Phnom Penh's

squatters, have been officially warned they will be evicted one day.

In

fact, unlike in many countries, most of the city's squatters have paid money for

the privilege of living where they do.

Some paid the Sangkat (local

authority) or the "owners" of individual plots of land. Most can produce pieces

of paper testifying to their ownership of the land, and the renting or sale of

properties, even the barest shacks, is common.

Some were actually told to

live where they do. Ouk Sinat moved in to Bandos Vichea in 1981, during the mass

repatriation to Phnom Penh of civilians after the fall of the Khmer Rouge

regime, at the instruction of local authorities.

So Kim Leang, whose

husband works at the Ministry of Culture - Bandos Vichea was originally

designated for ministry housing in the 1980s - remembers being charged 100 riel

and a ceiling fan by the Sangkat to be allowed to move there 10 years

ago.

Now, however, the authorities take a more severe view toward the

squatters of Phnom Penh.

Hundreds of them were evicted from near the

burnt-out Basaac Theater on the riverfront last year, some of whom have since

made their way to Bandos Vichea.

The Basaac district, called Khan

ChamKarmom, houses some 6,700 squatter families, according to a 1994 survey, and

is the biggest concentration of squatters in the capital.

At the city's

largest squatter camp, called simply Tonle Basaac (Basaac River), Thach Nang,

53, paid one domlung of gold for his small two-story house.

A refugee at

Site B in Thailand before the elections, he was resettled in Battambang in 1993

before moving to Phnom Penh to work with UNTAC.

Now he makes a living of

selling roasted bananas, earning up to 5000 riels on a good day, and says "life

is normal".

The Tonle Basaac camp, of around 2,000 homes ranging from

study wooden ones to flimsy shacks, is also dotted by rubbish and sewage but is

much cleaner than Bandos Vichea.

In the rainy season, much of the camp is

under water. Illness is common around the year.

Thach Nang points to his

16-year-daughter Somaly, nestling a baby in her arms, and says: "Many people are

affected by typhoid, including her.

"Some families can send their sick to

the hospital but you can see how I make a living," he says, carving wooden

sticks on which to roast bananas.

"All I have been able to do is to keep

buying medicines from local shops here. You know how medical services are

provided - you can get your children cured only if you have money."

The

Urban Sector Group (USG) - foreign and Cambodian NGOs working with the urban

poor - refer sick squatters and medicine donations to a local doctor.

Dr

Paou Linar, of the Cambodian Conductors Association, a cyclo-drivers

association, received 192 patients when he held his first clinic for squatters

last October.

He says the number was particularly high because of

flooding at the time. He now sees anything from 50 to 130 people each

month.

Common illnesses included severe dehydration and diarrhea,

particularly among children, typhoid and bronchitis, as well as stress-related

complaints and general lethargy.

"The poor families do not have enough

income to support their living. There is fighting between wives and husbands...

the mind can easily go out of control."

A survey of squatters at 144

sites by the USG last year found many were cyclo drivers, food sellers,

construction workers, beggars or scavengers. Their average daily income ranged

from 1,500 to 7,000 riels. Government and military employees are also said to be

common tenants.

But moves are being made to improve the lives of

squatters, and they themselves are spear-heading the changes.

Nearly all

of Phnom Penh's squatter camps have community organizations and leaders,

assisted by USG.

One community has banded together to organize rubbish

collection and another has arranged daycare centers for children.

Some

2000 families have contributed 20 million riel - 1000 riel per family, on

average - to a USG savings scheme.

AT the very back of the Tonle Basaac squatter camp near the city's

riverfront, up a thin dirt track through rubbish and sewage, live perhaps the

poorest of Phnom Penh's squatting poor.

A skeletal shelter of empty

cement bags and straw held up by bamboo poles is home to Proeng Phon (far right)

and his extended family of eight.

Perched on a small wooden bed next to

their pots and few other possessions, they can see across the roofs of the

shacks and houses of their community to the ritzy Cambodiana Hotel in the

distance.

"We'll stay here until we are made to move out by someone,"

says Phon, 40, who moved to Phnom Penh from Kampong Cham a year ago.

"I

would have stayed in Kampong Cham if I had any land to grow crops

on.

"That's why I decided to come to Phnom Penh, to find work. I used to

work as a construction worker from time to time, but I have no fixed

job."

For the past month, since he came down with a chronic fever he

fears is malaria, he has done nothing.

He has not sought medical help for

his fever because he believes that, without money, "there is no way I can do

anything about it".

He says he would like to do more to help his wife Say

and three-month-old daughter Pev, but does not have the strength to go out and

make a living.

"Lately we have lived on the charity of friends and

neighbors who give us 1,000 or 2,000 riels a day to buy rice."

Also

sharing his home is his elderly father and his brother-in-law's family of four -

none of whom have regular work.

ON the top of a sprawling, dilapidated

Phnom Penh building lies one of the city's most unique squatter communities; the

closest most will ever get to penthouse apartments.

The rooftop of Block

Tan Pas, down the road from the Central market, houses some 300 squatter

families, complete with their own shops and even a karaoke bar.

Hundreds

more live in the building itself, which stretches in a rectangle around an

entire block of Street 51. But when that was filled with people years ago, every

spare bit of land - from the roof to an open plot of land in between the

building's four wings - was soon occupied.

A labyrinth of alleyways snake

their way through dozens of shacks, some freshly made with good wood and

corrugated iron and others thatch and bamboo, on the rooftop.

Sok Pheap,

42, who lives there with her husband, says: "It was the cheapest place I could

afford".

She pays 20,000 riels a month for their home - little more than

a concrete box, measuring about three and a half meters by one and a half meters

- next to a stairway to the roof.

She makes a living as a streetside food

seller while her husband, who has been sick with liver and stomach pains for two

months, stays at home.

After fleeing Cambodia to Vietnam during the Khmer

Rouge years, she returned with her Vietnamese husband in 1991.

She has

lived in Block Tan Pas - apparently named after its owner, though residents

claim "no-one owns it" - for two years. Two of her three children live elsewhere

on the roof.

Pheap says the roof has one communal toilet section. When

its pipe gets blocked, as regularly happens, families pitch in enough money to

have it cleared.

She buys water from sellers downstairs and, though some

families have strung up electricity lines, she uses a kerosene lamp for light at

night. In the rainy season, the roof floods heavily.

The squatters have a

community organization, but she says it does little except to occasionally

arrange clean-ups of rubbish on the roof. Much of it appears to be thrown off

its sides.

"In short, life is difficult here," says Pheap

matter-of-factly. "If we can, we want to get out as soon as

possible."

But the rooftop appears cleaner and more pleasant, and the

people slightly more well-off, than some of Phnom Penh's other squatter

camps.

It has its own market alleyway, with shops selling food and

charcoal, and bingo and gambling houses.

It acquired its own karaoke bar

last month, opened by long-term resident Ha Yaing Vek, 56, who says business is

slow "but just enough to live on".

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