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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Situation grim at Tuol Sambo

Situation grim at Tuol Sambo

These families [at tuol sambo] are in dire need of basic assistance.

THE lack of food at a controversial resettlement site that is home to more than 60 HIV-positive individuals is "potentially life-threatening", a new report has warned.

The joint field report from four HIV/AIDS NGOs was released Friday, the same day that the heads of the National Aids Authority (NAA) and UNAIDS Cambodia visited Dangkor district's Tuol Sambo village for the first time.

City Hall forcibly relocated 20 HIV-affected families to Tuol Sambo following their June eviction from the Borei Keila community in central Phnom Penh. About 20 more Borei Keila families were sent there in July.

Residents at Tuol Sambo have complained that their 3.5-metre-by-4.5-metre green metal sheds - which are smaller than those required for emergency refugee camps - become oppressively hot during the day. On Friday, a broken water pump had rendered a local well unusable, meaning that residents looking for drinking water needed to buy water jugs at 1,200 riels (US$0.29) each.

The lack of resources described in the joint field report was borne out by interviews. Touch Sokhak, 45, who is HIV-positive, said his family did not have enough food or drinking water, adding that the heat made it difficult to store his medicine.

"We face a lot of difficulties living here, but the main problem is that it is too hot," he said. "It makes my health get worse because I do not sleep enough."

Tak Dina, 30, described the discrimination she faced at the site, another concern raised in the report.

The former restaurant worker said her efforts to sell cold drinks in the village had been unsuccessful because no one would buy from her.

"Here we cannot sell," she said. "If I sell drinks, no one will come to buy because they are disgusted with HIV-positive people. Other villagers have an easy time recognising us because we are different from them, and because we live in these green houses."

Jason Barber, a monitoring consultant for the rights group Licadho, said conditions at the site had become "grimmer and grimmer" in recent weeks.

"I think the people are expecting to see some results from this visit, and I think they will judge the government and UN agencies on their actions rather than their words here," Barber said. "It's one thing to express concern. It's another thing to meaningfully provide some assistance."

Coordinating aid
Residents and NGO workers described a diffuse humanitarian assistance effort.

There are currently at least 11 NGOs providing various forms of assistance, from food to medical treatment to education, said Oum Vicheth, a home-care officer at the Centre of Hope, which has operated a weekly mobile clinic at the site.

UNAIDS Country Director Tony Lisle said Sunday that the purpose of the visit was "to get an immediate overview of the current situation in respect of the community's needs", adding that he would meet this week with stakeholders and the NAA to discuss ways "to better coordinate the response".

While Lisle said the aid effort had been "reasonably well-coordinated" and that NGOs had been "exceptionally flexible", he noted that there was room for improvement.

"I think, again, we need to emphasise national leadership," Lisle said. "The NAA will lead on coordination."

NAA Secretary-General Teng Kunthy said Friday that his organisation had devised a plan to improve conditions at the site, though the specific efforts he mentioned hinged on NGOs.

"We have acknowledged that the shelters are hot and narrow, but Caritas will help improve their living," he said, referring to the Catholic charity Caritas Cambodia.

He also said Caritas would construct a pipe system that would bring water to the individual dwellings. Kim Rattana, executive director of Caritas, said the pipe system would be completed in mid-September.

Both Lisle and Christophe Peschoux, the Cambodia representative of the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed concern that NGOs were being forced to pick up the pieces of a poorly executed eviction, arguing that the municipality had not taken steps to properly set up the site before moving families there. City Hall could not be reached for comment over the weekend.

Peschoux said he believed NGOs risked inadvertently condoning future evictions by providing humanitarian assistance, though he said they did not have the luxury of retreating "behind nice principles" and refusing to help the evictees.

"In this case, humanitarian agencies are facing a dilemma," he said. "We are opposed to forced evictions by principle because they are inhumane and increase poverty and social distress.... At the same time, the eviction has taken place and these families are in dire need of basic assistance."

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JAMES O'TOOLE

TUOL SAMBO Timeline

JUNE 18, 2009 The government begins evicting residents of Borei Keila, with 20 HIV-affected families being moved from their homes in front of the new Ministry of Tourism building to Tuol Sambo.

JULY 23, 2009 Another 20 families from Borei Keila are relocated by the government to Tuol Sambo as residents complain that the relocation site lacks adequate housing and services.

JULY 27, 2009 More than 100 international HIV/AIDS and social justice organisations call on the government to "urgently address dangerous conditions in a de facto AIDS colony".

AUGUST 28, 2009 The heads of UNAIDS and the National AIDS Authority visit the Tuol Sambo relocation site to assess conditions and make recommendations for better coordination of services to residents.

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