Relocated to Prey Sala II Village north of Phnom Penh International Airport after being evicted from their Toul Kok homes almost five years ago, the family of Him Oun and her neighbors say their living conditions remain grim and nothing has been done by the government to assist them. From left: rape victim Srey Hei, a neighbor, Him Oun, and the HIV-stricken couple Thoa Pov and his wife.
T he eviction of thousands of poor people from central Phnom Penh to remote areas by city authorities with government backing has been in the news repeatedly this year - from Koh Pich, from Village 14 (Sambok Chab) near Tonle Bassac, from the adjacent Village 15, from land by the Preah Monivong Hospital near Psar Thmey.
More evictions are threatened for the inhabitants of Group 78, for families living around Boeng Kak, and others living on land in Chruoy Changvar that the government has promised to the Malaysian Sun City project.
The city has been engaged in evictions like these for more than a decade. Sam Rith talks to some of the hopeless, forgotten victims of evictions from several years ago.
Sitting on a bamboo bed, leaning against the wall of her one-and-half meter thatched hut to get shade from the evening sun, 50-year-old Him Oun has an air of hopeless, endless waiting.
Oun is waiting for the day she will be taken home to Toul Kok. It is a day that may never come.
Four years and seven months ago Oun and 109 other families were evicted from Village 10, in Phnom Penh's Khan Toul Kok, to make way for a commercial development by a private company owned by Othsman Hassan, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Labor.
They were taken to Prey Sala II Village, in Khan Dangkao, about five kilometers away from the main road running past Phnom Penh International Airport. There they were deposited on the bare land where Hassan's company allocated each of the 110 families a 7-by-15-meter plot in exchange for the land and houses from which they had been evicted in Toul Kok.
There was no water supply, no sewerage, no electricity, no market, no hospital, no school, and no security.
Nearly five years later, nothing has changed. Oun says Prey Sala II has never had a visit from any authority - not the government, not the city, nor any humanitarian organization.
They are a forgotten people, living year after year in squalor, with no hope of employment, of lifting themselves above subsistence.
"Living here in Prey Sala II is misery," Oun said. "There is still absolutely nothing: not even water for drinking, electricity, hospital, market, school, nor any way of making a living. So far more than ten people in the village have died from starvation and lack of medical care - it is too far away from any hospital."
Oun points to neighbor Thoa Pov, standing near her, to illustrate what she means. Pov, 46, has been living with HIV/AIDS for a year. In that time he has had two crises when he has fallen seriously ill, and he says he owes his life to the kindness of his neighbors.
"Once, he almost died he was so ill," Oun said. "But the people here got together and raised enough money to buy an IV [intravenous] bottle to revive him in time."
Pov said he and his wife, who also has HIV/AIDS, were surviving only because of the support of their fellow villagers and that of a nearby pagoda.
Pov and his wife were forced to sell the hut they once owned to get money just to stay alive. Now they have nothing and live in their neighbor's hut.
Oun said the poverty in the village was so extreme that only four or five of the 110 families originally given plots of land by Hassan still owned them. The others, stricken with starvation and disease, had sold their land and houses for food or medical treatment. Some of them still occupy the plots whose titles they have surrendered to outsiders; others live in roadside squats.
"I also sold my land and house to treat my sickness and to keep my family alive - otherwise my six children and I would have died of hunger," Oun said. "Now I am living in a hut over the open drain of someone's land. And I do not know when I will be forced to leave."
Othsman Hassan told the Post on October 2 that his company will build a commercial center on the Toul Kok land from which Oun and her fellow villagers were evicted five years ago.
Hassan said he planned to spend between $60 million and $90 million to develop 10 hectares of land on two plots -one in Village 10 in Toul Kok and the other in Srah Chak in Daun Penh. He said nearly 300 more families would be evicted from the two areas.
"Now we, together with the Phnom Penh Municipality, are organizing the legal work and solving the problems with the 300 families who are still on the land-more than 200 families in Village 10 and more than 50 in Sangkat Srah Chak," Hassan said.
Oun wistfully recalled when she and the other 109 families lived in Village 10, Toul Kok.
"In Phnom Penh, if we had 1,000 or 1,500 riel, we could just cross the street and walk to Psar Sammaki to buy a fish and a bunch of trokun (water spinach) and that was enough food for the day," she said. "But here we have to have at least 5,000 riel to buy that at Psar Pochentong because we have to pay 4,000 riel for a motodop."
Standing beside her, Pov explained how Prey Sala II's remoteness affects him. He said to get life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) he has to get up at 4am to walk 15 km to central Phnom Penh when he doesn't have the 7,000-to-10,000 riel for the trip there and back by motodop.
Mao Chanthy, 39, has also sold his land and house. He said he is jobless because he did not have any money to repair his tuktuk. He, too, compared the hardness of his life now with the old days in Village 10, Tuol Kok. There, he used to earn at least 10,000 riel a day, and it was easy to repair a tire when he needed to.
Chanthy said now he has to depend on his wife, who works on the railway for a salary of 60,000 riel (about $15) a month.
"My family is getting poorer day by day," Chanthy said. He has sent his four children to live with his mother in Kampot to go to school there, because after five years there is still no school in Prey Sala II.
Another problem with Prey Sala II, Oun says, is that the village has no security.
"When night comes, people dare not go out - they stay in their huts," she said. "My daughter was pulled off the back of a motodop and raped by three unidentified men in 2003 when she was coming back at 9pm from work in Phnom Penh. The trauma has given her psychological problems lasting until today."
Oun's daughter Srey Hei, 26, remembers the rape with horror.
"If I had been living in Phnom Penh this would never have happened," she said. "In Phnom Penh, I sold beer until 9:30pm and I never had problems like this."
In their desperation, Oun and others in Prey Sala II village cling to one fading hope: they say that Othsman Hassan's company promised them that they would be called back to live in their Toul Kok Village 10 when the company had finished construction.
"Now I am hopeless about the company's promise because it's already four years and seven months since we left from the Village 10. But no one, neither from the company nor any authority, has come to say even a word," Oun said. "If we had known in advance that we would have such difficulty, we would not have agreed to move here. Other families who are still living in the village in Khan Toul Kok are much luckier than us."
Hassan says the villagers will not be allowed back.
"It is not true - we did not promise them that," he said. "We will not call them back to live [in Village 10] because they had a contract with my company through the Phnom Penh Municipality that they agreed to get compensation with a plot of land and money - most families got $400."
Prey Sala II village is one of several sites on the outskirts of Phnom Penh municipal territory where people who once lived in the city center have been exiled without the provision of water, sewerage, electricity, schools, hospitals, or means of subsistence.
A couple of kilometers from Prey Sala II, the Post spoke to Pov Sokha, 36, a member of one of six families evicted in 2002 from Tonle Bassac and relocated in Chhoeung Srok village. Like the villagers of Prey Sala II, Sokha said no one in authority had ever visited her family in the four years since their eviction.
"The Phnom Penh City people brought us here and isolated us here to live like animals," she said. "I have never seen anyone come and ask us about our living conditions."
Her family is the only one remaining in Chhoeung Srok of the six removed there. Four families sold their land and houses and went back to their ancestral province or made their way back to Phnom Penh to rent a house and work. A fifth householder is working in Phnom Penh and trying to sell his property. "Because here is too far from the market and the hospital and there is no place to work," Sokha said.
The Post asked officials at the Phnom Penh Municipality how many families the city had evicted over the past few years. City Hall officials declined to reveal any figures. Non-government organizations the Post spoke to did not have extensive records, but newspaper reports show many families having been evicted every year over the past decade.
Local human rights NGO Licadho said that this year the biggest completed eviction had been 1,500 to 1,600 families from Village 14 (Sambok Chab) in Tonle Bassac who were relocated on June 6 to land in Andong Village in Dangkao. Between June 29 and July 5, 168 families were evicted from land next to Preah Monivong Hospital near Psar Thmei and taken to Sre Ampil village in Ang Snuol district in Kandal province 10 km west of Dangkao. Also in July, the gradual evacuation of Village 15 began, across the road from Sambok Chab just south of the old Bassac Theater, with the relocation of the first 300 of 1,465 families to Damnak Trayeong village in Dangkao.
Licadho director Naly Pilorge told the Post Licadho and other NGOs are taking a close interest in Phnom Penh City's eviction of its poorest.
"We have been providing medical care, monitors to observe and investigate, and referrals to lawyers if needed, information to donors, NGOs, embassies and media if relevant, basic materials if we can and lobbying NGO coalitions," she said.
Kou Sina, program coordinator for the Urban Poor Women Development (UPWD), said when people were evicted from a community and forced to move to a new place where there was nothing, they had to start from scratch, and building a new community took a long time.
"That's why the lives of these evicted people are so poor," Sina said. "If the government continues doing this, evicting people to where there is nothing - no school, no water system, no road, no market, no hospital - they will never get rid of poverty."
Meanwhile an ominous silence has fallen over Group 78, a 200-meter-long street of 146 families between the Bassac Theater and Bassac River.
Forewarned by the eviction of Village 14 behind them and Village 15 across the road, when City Hall handed eviction notices to the Group 78 villagers they quickly enlisted the legal services of several NGOs. The villagers were able to produce certificates of title to their land and houses, some going back to the 1980s. Their land was valued at $550 a square meter, they said, and if the city wanted it, that is what it should pay.
But the government repudiated the villagers' certificates and declared the entire 45-meter width of reclaimed swampland, houses included, to be a public road, one of the widest in Phnom Penh. The villagers, it said, were squatters and must go.
Negotiations between the City and the villagers and their lawyers continued for several weeks. But City Hall officials have stopped talking to them, according to Nuon Sokchea, a lawyer with the Community Legal Education Center.
Now the villagers of Group 78 and their lawyers fear the City authorities are waiting until NGOs are looking the other way, then will suddenly swoop in a dawn raid one day soon and forcibly evict the entire community to Dangkao to share the destitute exile of the thousands of other poor citizens whom Phnom Penh has expelled from its center.