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Bassac's squatters ponder their future

Bassac's squatters ponder their future

Musician and teacher Kung Roughly, 60, in dark glasses, with students and teachers of the Cambodian Living Arts School gathered for a photograph at the Vann Molyvann-designed complex on Sothearos Boulevard. The school's future is uncertain: the area may disappear as development of the Tonle Bassac area continues.

S eng Sampors is about to lose her home. Like many of the 1,500 families in Tonle Bassac, she first heard that their eviction will begin later this month on local radio. No official statement has been made to the villagers.

"I borrowed money to pay the rent on my house - I already paid a lot of money in interest but now I don't know what to do, don't know where to live," said Sampors, 36, who has been living in the Phnom Penh squatter area for 13 years.

On the radio she also heard that only house owners would be given compensation in the relocation process, leaving the majority of residents - including her own family of 11 - without a home.

"Some people here are very surprised to hear that they are being evicted," Sampors said. "Many have just rented a house recently and they still don't know if they will get a new one when they are removed."

Many of the Tonle Bassac residents have been living in the area for more than a decade; some have no title to the land, many are squatting illegally.

But the Tonle Bassac area is more than a gathering of fragile, makeshift homes.

With its schools, its young artists and thousands of inhabitants from all generations, the village on the banks of the Tonle Bassac - known to some as Village 14, to others as Sambok Chab, or the Birds' Nest - is a poor, but striving community about to be displaced.

For instance, tucked away in Sambok Chab behind the Russian Embassy lies the Happy School.

A group of Cambodian Living Arts performers who live and practice together in Tonle Bassac.

There, 200 of Phnom Penh's shoeshine kids, junk-collectors and sugarcane sellers study the standard primary school curriculum from Monday until Friday in classrooms financed by Harvest Korea (HK), a Christian missionary organization. They are encouraged to attend Christian worship on Sundays.

The villagers of Sambok Chab are scheduled to be moved this month to Dangkor district, 17 kilometers outside Phnom Penh. The principal of Happy School, Sou Vibol, said he was worried about losing the children in the process.

"I believe that [the parents and children] will be separated when the families are evicted," said Vibol. "I think the families will be facing difficulties with living and making business."

He said he would do his best to bring the students together again in their new district.

Suor Srun Enterprises (SSE), the company behind the eviction, said the displacement of residents in Sambok Chab would go ahead as planned.

"The company has not changed its stance towards removing those families. If they disagree with relocating we will use force to evict them," said Khui Chhor, assistant to Suor Pheng, the owner of SSE.

On December 12, about 200 people gathered in Phnom Penh's Sovanna Phum theater in Tuol Sleng to celebrate the artist community of Tonle Bassac. Clearly moved, the founder of the World Education-funded Cambodian Living Arts, Arn Chorn

Students at the Korean Christian-run Happy School in Sambok Chab (Village 14) study the standard primary curriculum five days a week. School principal Sou Vibol says he fears the students will disperse and be lost to education when they are moved to Dangkor district 17 kilometers outside Phnom Penh, but that he will try to bring them together again

Pond, took the stage after an ecstatic two-hour performance by children from the Tonle Bassac.

" We are going to dance, sing and perform everywhere," Chorn Pond said. "In the city, in the slums, everywhere, until we have found a place where the people of Tonle Bassac can live."

"We are performing because in Cambodia, art is peace, and because the last thing I want is for these children to live like refugees in their own country," he said, and motioned toward the dozens of performing children, aged seven to 19, wearing multicolored costumes and waving to the crowd.

Charley Todd, co-president of Cambodian Living Arts, said the show was set up to draw attention to the eviction, to celebrate the young talents of the performing arts - and to bring the community together one last time before it disappeared entirely,


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