"It's almost impossible to live here," says Ouk Sinat, 28, with a glance toward
her two young sons. "I really, really want to move out, but..." Her quiet voice,
with a trace of real pain, fades into silence. She doesn't bother to state the
obvious - she has nowhere better to go.
For now, like for the past 14
years, Sinat's address will remain the same: No. 40GD, Bandos Vichea, downtown
Phnom Penh - two small rooms, a tiny kitchen and bathroom in a monstrous,
crumbling apartment building surrounded by rubbish, sewage, flies and
Living the impossible is a daily experience for Sinat, like many of
the rest of Phnom Penh's 100,000 squatters - about 10 per cent of the capital's
In many ways, she is better than some. She has a solid roof
over her head, reasonably regular water and electricity supplies, and just
enough money to survive from her job at a textile factory and from her mother
living in the United States.
After surviving the Khmer Rouge years,
marriage at age 14 and later divorce, she still has her health, her sons
Sovannarith, 7, and Sorannara, 12, and her pride.
Her apartment is
usually as spotless as its bare, black walls and cracked ceiling will allow, and
she herself impeccably dressed.
But outside her door lies a reality -
rubbish, stench, the threat of disease and theft - which spares her little time
for contentment or hope for her children's future.
It's a reality which
makes So Kim Leang, who lives down their corridor with her family of seven,
loathe to let her children outside her apartment.
"I really worry every
day about my children's health," says Leang, who has lived there for 10 years.
"The place is dirty and it makes many people very easy to get
"Before, people used to spend the weekend cleaning the grounds for
the kids to play on, but not anymore.
"Now I have to lock up my children
in the room or let them play in the corridor, except when they go
Downstairs from Sinat and Leang's apartments is a sight which
everyone agrees is disgusting but no-one, it seems, is prepared to do anything
Lining either side of Bandos Vichea - a burnt-out old apartment
building which stretches maybe half a mile alongside Samdech Sothearos Blvd near
the Basaac River - are years of accumulated rubbish and sewage.
stench is overwhelming in places, as flies hover overhead, rats and frogs dart
around, and small children scavenge and squat to go to the toilet.
got used to the smell," laughs 68-year-old Mao On, who lives in a tiny concrete
alcove under one of the building's stairways.
As she talks, sewage drops
from an open pipe out of the building above, joining a flow of filth toward the
rear of the building's grounds.
"It's disgusting but I don't have
anywhere to move to. I have no money," On says.
The apartment building is
home to an unknown number of people, but there must be more than 1000. Outside,
on either side, are dozens more recent arrivals living in makeshift wooden or
Many of those who live in the building blame the new
squatters outside for the mess.
"People dump rubbish outside their
houses," says On. "There is no proper sewage [system] or toilets. They just go
in the rubbish or wherever they want."
Sam, a 45-year-old Kampuchea Krom
who sells eggs from one of the food stalls around the building, says: "Many
people get sick from fever, typhoid and other things."
She, like many who
live in the building, say they take their rubbish to a nearby depot for Phnom
Penh Municipality garbage collectors.
But when the Post visited, a
regular stream of rubbish - and of sewage from open pipes - flowed out of the
building to add to the piles below.
Asked what the municipality
authorities do for the squatters, most reply with a firm "Ot ay" [definitely
They purchase water from private vendors, who pump it around
the building, and electricity is provided via official or unofficial
Clearing the mounds of rubbish around the building is unheard of -
the municipality's rubbish department has told residents it is a health hazard
they will not deal with.
The residents, like most of Phnom Penh's
squatters, have been officially warned they will be evicted one day.
fact, unlike in many countries, most of the city's squatters have paid money for
the privilege of living where they do.
Some paid the Sangkat (local
authority) or the "owners" of individual plots of land. Most can produce pieces
of paper testifying to their ownership of the land, and the renting or sale of
properties, even the barest shacks, is common.
Some were actually told to
live where they do. Ouk Sinat moved in to Bandos Vichea in 1981, during the mass
repatriation to Phnom Penh of civilians after the fall of the Khmer Rouge
regime, at the instruction of local authorities.
So Kim Leang, whose
husband works at the Ministry of Culture - Bandos Vichea was originally
designated for ministry housing in the 1980s - remembers being charged 100 riel
and a ceiling fan by the Sangkat to be allowed to move there 10 years
Now, however, the authorities take a more severe view toward the
squatters of Phnom Penh.
Hundreds of them were evicted from near the
burnt-out Basaac Theater on the riverfront last year, some of whom have since
made their way to Bandos Vichea.
The Basaac district, called Khan
ChamKarmom, houses some 6,700 squatter families, according to a 1994 survey, and
is the biggest concentration of squatters in the capital.
At the city's
largest squatter camp, called simply Tonle Basaac (Basaac River), Thach Nang,
53, paid one domlung of gold for his small two-story house.
A refugee at
Site B in Thailand before the elections, he was resettled in Battambang in 1993
before moving to Phnom Penh to work with UNTAC.
Now he makes a living of
selling roasted bananas, earning up to 5000 riels on a good day, and says "life
The Tonle Basaac camp, of around 2,000 homes ranging from
study wooden ones to flimsy shacks, is also dotted by rubbish and sewage but is
much cleaner than Bandos Vichea.
In the rainy season, much of the camp is
under water. Illness is common around the year.
Thach Nang points to his
16-year-daughter Somaly, nestling a baby in her arms, and says: "Many people are
affected by typhoid, including her.
"Some families can send their sick to
the hospital but you can see how I make a living," he says, carving wooden
sticks on which to roast bananas.
"All I have been able to do is to keep
buying medicines from local shops here. You know how medical services are
provided - you can get your children cured only if you have money."
Urban Sector Group (USG) - foreign and Cambodian NGOs working with the urban
poor - refer sick squatters and medicine donations to a local doctor.
Paou Linar, of the Cambodian Conductors Association, a cyclo-drivers
association, received 192 patients when he held his first clinic for squatters
He says the number was particularly high because of
flooding at the time. He now sees anything from 50 to 130 people each
Common illnesses included severe dehydration and diarrhea,
particularly among children, typhoid and bronchitis, as well as stress-related
complaints and general lethargy.
"The poor families do not have enough
income to support their living. There is fighting between wives and husbands...
the mind can easily go out of control."
A survey of squatters at 144
sites by the USG last year found many were cyclo drivers, food sellers,
construction workers, beggars or scavengers. Their average daily income ranged
from 1,500 to 7,000 riels. Government and military employees are also said to be
But moves are being made to improve the lives of
squatters, and they themselves are spear-heading the changes.
of Phnom Penh's squatter camps have community organizations and leaders,
assisted by USG.
One community has banded together to organize rubbish
collection and another has arranged daycare centers for children.
2000 families have contributed 20 million riel - 1000 riel per family, on
average - to a USG savings scheme.
AT the very back of the Tonle Basaac squatter camp near the city's
riverfront, up a thin dirt track through rubbish and sewage, live perhaps the
poorest of Phnom Penh's squatting poor.
A skeletal shelter of empty
cement bags and straw held up by bamboo poles is home to Proeng Phon (far right)
and his extended family of eight.
Perched on a small wooden bed next to
their pots and few other possessions, they can see across the roofs of the
shacks and houses of their community to the ritzy Cambodiana Hotel in the
"We'll stay here until we are made to move out by someone,"
says Phon, 40, who moved to Phnom Penh from Kampong Cham a year ago.
would have stayed in Kampong Cham if I had any land to grow crops
"That's why I decided to come to Phnom Penh, to find work. I used to
work as a construction worker from time to time, but I have no fixed
For the past month, since he came down with a chronic fever he
fears is malaria, he has done nothing.
He has not sought medical help for
his fever because he believes that, without money, "there is no way I can do
anything about it".
He says he would like to do more to help his wife Say
and three-month-old daughter Pev, but does not have the strength to go out and
make a living.
"Lately we have lived on the charity of friends and
neighbors who give us 1,000 or 2,000 riels a day to buy rice."
sharing his home is his elderly father and his brother-in-law's family of four -
none of whom have regular work.
ON the top of a sprawling, dilapidated
Phnom Penh building lies one of the city's most unique squatter communities; the
closest most will ever get to penthouse apartments.
The rooftop of Block
Tan Pas, down the road from the Central market, houses some 300 squatter
families, complete with their own shops and even a karaoke bar.
more live in the building itself, which stretches in a rectangle around an
entire block of Street 51. But when that was filled with people years ago, every
spare bit of land - from the roof to an open plot of land in between the
building's four wings - was soon occupied.
A labyrinth of alleyways snake
their way through dozens of shacks, some freshly made with good wood and
corrugated iron and others thatch and bamboo, on the rooftop.
42, who lives there with her husband, says: "It was the cheapest place I could
She pays 20,000 riels a month for their home - little more than
a concrete box, measuring about three and a half meters by one and a half meters
- next to a stairway to the roof.
She makes a living as a streetside food
seller while her husband, who has been sick with liver and stomach pains for two
months, stays at home.
After fleeing Cambodia to Vietnam during the Khmer
Rouge years, she returned with her Vietnamese husband in 1991.
lived in Block Tan Pas - apparently named after its owner, though residents
claim "no-one owns it" - for two years. Two of her three children live elsewhere
on the roof.
Pheap says the roof has one communal toilet section. When
its pipe gets blocked, as regularly happens, families pitch in enough money to
have it cleared.
She buys water from sellers downstairs and, though some
families have strung up electricity lines, she uses a kerosene lamp for light at
night. In the rainy season, the roof floods heavily.
The squatters have a
community organization, but she says it does little except to occasionally
arrange clean-ups of rubbish on the roof. Much of it appears to be thrown off
"In short, life is difficult here," says Pheap
matter-of-factly. "If we can, we want to get out as soon as
But the rooftop appears cleaner and more pleasant, and the
people slightly more well-off, than some of Phnom Penh's other squatter
It has its own market alleyway, with shops selling food and
charcoal, and bingo and gambling houses.
It acquired its own karaoke bar
last month, opened by long-term resident Ha Yaing Vek, 56, who says business is
slow "but just enough to live on".