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With looming evictions, families haunted by an uncertain future

With looming evictions, families haunted by an uncertain future

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Hundreds of families across Phnom Penh say they will be forcibly relocated soon, and unanswered questions about their future have left many frightened and depressed.

Photo by:
CHRISTOPHER SHAY

Suon Davy, who has HIV, stands by her home in Borei Kelia. She worries how she will survive at a relocation site far from the city.

MORE than 228 Phnom Penh families whose homes were burned down in a suspected arson near Sovanna Market on the night of April 15 say they are not being allowed to rebuild their homes - a clear sign, they say, the city will be kicking them off their land.

These families are not alone in their predicament. At least 37 families living near the Lycee Francais Rene Descartes, 32 families in the Borei Keila community, 219 families in the Rik Reay community and 475 families in Trapaing Chhook village in Russey Keo district all say their evictions are imminent.

The nearly 1,000 families facing eviction in these areas represents only a fraction of the total number, a local rights group says.

Since 2004, Cambodia has evicted 15,000 families, said Ouch Leng, an investigator at rights group Adhoc.

Community members from each of the five villages say the uncertainty of their future has left their communities dejected and frightened.

We are so sad.... now they will move us again to a faraway place.

"We are so sad because they have moved us three times already, and now they will move us again to a faraway place," said Penh Sim, the deputy chief of the community in Borei Keila where at least one person in every family requires anti-retroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS.

Sok Chenda, 54, who expects to be forced off her land near the Lycee Francais Rene Descartes in the next few days, said, "I am really worried about the situation at the new place because we don't know about the conditions of the land."

Many villagers facing eviction say they are willing to start over but only if they can be sure they will be safe, healthy and able to make a living in their new location. In Tomnup Toek commune near the Sovanna Market, even some residents who have lived there since 1996 said they would be happy to move under the right conditions.

So Vor, 37, estimated "70 percent of residents would volunteer to move if the authorities gave them a new place with a house".

Residents admit that the living conditions in some of these communities are bad. The area of Borei Keila with the HIV-affected community, for example, periodically floods with over 40 centimetres of polluted water, say villagers.

But at the moment, no one is sure their new homes will be any better.

In a similar case to last week's fire, the day before Khmer New Year in 2008, a fire destroyed an entire community in Russey Keo district. After moving to nearby Trapaing Chhook - a makeshift ghetto of shelters made from rubbish and leftover construction material - the community remains in limbo.

"What will they do for us?" Sour Menhour of Trapaing Chhook village asked.

"I want to ask permission from the authority to construct real houses. We cannot wait any longer because it is hard to live here during the rainy season," he said.

Chan Bunthol, a former high school teacher from Rik Reay community, said he lost his job as a result of the eviction process. He refused to leave  home, fearing the development company would destroy it if he left.

Ouch Leng said when the Rik Reay community is moved, they will still face uncertainty, because they will continue to "live under the threat of eviction at the new site".

Mann Chhoeun, the deputy governor of the Phnom Penh Municipality, defended the city's relocation process, saying, "The city has succeeded so far in relocating people to the outskirts of the city, and [as a result] people have changed from drinkers to good men, from poor to rich and from homeless to homeowners with land titles."

The deputy governor said the city has relocated 43 communities and that all of them have good infrastructure and clean water.

But Sour Menghour from Trapaing Chhook says he has heard government assurances before and been disappointed.

"They promised us they would construct a new and wide road, drainage systems and divide the land for each family, but the government has so far kept quiet," he said.

Suon Davy, 41, who suffers from HIV and lives in Borei Keila, said that her community will be moved to Tuol Sambo village in Dangkor district and that it is worse than the squalid conditions she currently lives in.

"How can we live? It is about 25 kilometres from the city, doesn't have clean water, floods and lacks electricity," she asked.

In these communities, the uncertainty of relocation has left many constantly worrying about what comes next.

"We always think about our struggles in the future," Touch Yeum, the village chief of the community near the Lycee Francais Rene Descartes, said, echoing the fears of hundreds of Cambodians in similar circumstances.

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