Some 16 kilometres from the centre of Phnom Penh, rows of faded white houses sit sleepily in the sun. Next to them is a small lake, its surface dotted with bits of rubbish.
The fish in this lake provide income for some of the families who were relocated from the heart of Phnom Penh to Andong village to make space for a development project in Borei Keila near Olympic Stadium – but it’s not enough.
Now, with authorities making a renewed push to relocate the last Borei Keila holdouts to Andong, residents say that with hardly any infrastructure, no public transport and no employment opportunities, many are still struggling to make a living years after losing their homes.
One such resident is Art Samnang. Slurping fish curry on the floor of her apartment in the middle of the container-like building complex, Samnang described how her life had changed since she moved to Andong, on Phnom Penh’s northwest outskirts, three years ago.
“When I first came here it was really hard, because the house was not yet furnished and I couldn’t find a job,” she said. “But with time passing, I made a living.”
That quickly changed, however.
About five months after arriving at the relocation site, the 35-year-old was managing to earn about $10 a day selling food, which provided her with enough for her children. But as more Borei Keila evictees poured into the site, local competition increased, exacerbated by a lack of infrastructure and access to other markets.
Now, Samnang makes only about $1.25 to $2.50 a day, barely enough to feed her family.
Her new home elicits mixed feelings, Samnang said. On the one hand she was happy to have moved from Borei Keila, which she described as dirty and being surrounded by “many drug users”, but on the other, her financial situation was hard to bear.
“I’m happy living here because it’s clean and the children can go to school, but otherwise I’m not happy because of my job, as I can’t find money,” Samnang said pensively. And seeking opportunity isn’t cheap – a trip to the nearest sizeable market on a motodop costs about 5,000 riel one way, she said.
The land dispute in Borei Keila erupted when the developer Phanimex was granted permission to develop the area in exchange for building 10 buildings at the site to house the displaced residents.
Only eight of the buildings materialised, however, with Phanimex claiming financial difficulties. Mass evictions followed, even as residents refused to be relocated to the city’s outskirts.
More than 40 families remain in Borei Keila, refusing to accept compensation that they claim is unfair.
Despite having agreed to relocate to Andong, Samnang now thinks she should have been offered more. “It is not fair for us . . . We had no choice – that’s why we came here,” she said.
Samnang explained that she wanted to work in a factory to earn more money. “But my husband works far away in the construction industry, and if I work outside, who will take care of our children?” she asked.
About 10 metres down the near-empty road, former Borei Keila resident Pich Lim Khoun sits in his home, which doubles as a shop where he sells coffee and other drinks.
When he moved to Andong in early 2015 with his wife and four adopted children as part of the first group from Borei Keila, Lim Khoun managed to make a decent living, earning about $17.50 to $20 a day. Just like Samnang, he saw his income decline drastically about two years ago with the arrival of newcomers, who also tried their hand at selling drinks when no other job opportunities presented themselves.
“Nowadays, people are quiet,” he said.
One factor in that are the debts many people incurred over recent years. Now, most residents can’t afford to spend as much as they once did, with vendors like Lim Khoun taking the hit. In fact, Lim Khoun himself had to take out a microloan when his roof needed fixing a few months ago, a debt he will be unable to pay off for many months to come, he said. Now he only earns between $3.75 and $5 a day, a mere quarter of his income when he first came to Andong.
With the loan looming over his head and Lim Khoun shelling out about $2.25 a day for his children to go to school, there’s not much money left to pay for electricity and food, he said.
According to Lim Khoun, the lack of employment opportunities was the main reason many families ultimately left the area, or resisted moving to Andong in the first place. Of an initial 85 families who were offered relocation, only 34 families accepted. Of these, only 16 were still there.
Yet, Lim Khoun remained optimistic and was grateful to finally have documents for his land, something he did not have in Borei Keila. “All in all, I like living here, but what I dislike living here is the small house,” he said.
And compared to some newcomers, Lim Khoun is still lucky.
Phet Sreyleak, 30, moved to Andong village on Friday and is already struggling. Carrying her baby in the crook of her arm, she recounted how City Hall had called in 13 families who lived under the stairs of the Borei Keila building where many holdouts are squatting. The meeting was for a lucky draw to determine which houses they would get. “I lived in Borei Keila since I was a child,” she said, “but I didn’t have any documents to prove it, so I decided to move here.”
To sustain herself at Andong, she had to sell some of her belongings, such as her clothes. But still, “I don’t have enough to eat,” she said.
Sreyleak also had neither electricity nor a water connection, and pleaded with the municipality to connect her house.
This plea was echoed by Keo Tha, a 63-year old woman who also came to live in Andong from Borei Keila with her two children four days ago.
“I don’t have money,” she said, asking for financial support from the government. “I don’t have food for my children and grandchildren to eat.”
Back in Borei Keila, meanwhile, community representative Ngov Nary said the municipality had called holdouts into their office yesterday morning after word got out that they planned to protest. The city offered $15,000 in compensation per family, an offer that she said was still too low.
Instead, she said, the families should get between $20,000 and $25,000. “We will protest in front of [Phanimex owner] Suy Sophan so that the company will accelerate to solve the problem for us and respond to the demand,” she said.
But Sophan yesterday maintained she had fulfilled her obligation of building housing for people in Borei Keila, and any further compensation was for City Hall to offer.
When reached yesterday, Prampi Makara District Governor Lem Sophea hung up on a reporter.