Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Villagers sense return may be some way off

Villagers sense return may be some way off

Villagers sense return may be some way off

rash.jpg
rash.jpg

Khuan Rong with her baby which was born on Dec.16

only 300 mfrom the toxic waste dump in Sihanoukville.

KHLAING LEU VILLAGE - Khuan Rong's baby (photo) is

sick. The little boy, as yet unnamed, lies listless in her arms, his eyes closed.

When Rong undresses the baby to reveal a large rash covering its back, his head flops

forward and his limbs dangle across his mother's lap. The baby was born Dec 16 in

Bettrang village, 300 meters from Sihanoukville's toxic dump. It's now Jan 1.

Sin Chenda, a local nurse for the human rights organization Lic-adho, inspects the

baby's back and rubs some ointment into the rash. "I think it's a bit better

than yesterday," she muttered Jan 2, before turning to nearly 40 patients who

are all waiting for health exams.

The patients here lived in Bet-trang, but were forced out of their homes Dec 23 by

the military when the cleanup began. Their main source of income, a sawmill by the

dump, has been closed during the scare and most have not found other work. No-one

in authority has come to talk to them, they say.

"The first I knew [about the waste] was when the journalists came to take photographs,"

said Rong. She, like others, collected waste sacks from the dump to use as blankets,

roofing and mats. Like many, she complains of dizziness, nausea, headaches and fever

since coming into contact with the waste.

Some noticed the water supply in Bettrang had turned a cloudy yellow two days after

the waste was dumped. Pot Ry, 38, said her 12 chickens had died after feeding from

the dumpsite.

Members of the NGO Forum's Environment Working Group (EWG) and Star Kampuchea, who

conducted a survey in Sihanoukville over Christmas, also discovered similar stories.

Lak Kiem, from Pouthoeung village, reported that both his pigs died after rooting

in waste sacks. A resident of Koki noticed hundreds of rats lying dead around the

village. But like the people from Bettrang, everyone who talked to the EWG said no-one

had talked to them about the waste. Even in Koki, where a 23-year-old man died after

sleeping on a cot made of sacks from the site, officials had not visited the village,

they say.

The lack of contact between the villagers and the authorities concerns Michele Brandt,

Attorney Consultant from Legal Aid of Cambodia. She is bringing food and medicines

to Bettrang villagers.

"When we came to the village we found that no-one had come to tell them about

ways to protect themselves from the dump, or about leaving the site", she said.

When the military came to move them out of their homes they did not tell them where

to go, or document where they went, she said.

"We found that they no longer had income, and no food. Many were hungry, so

one of the first things we did was contact the World Food Programme."

The WFP has since donated cooking oil, protein biscuits and rice to the families.

The organization was due to decide this week how long it could continue providing

food.

As the villagers listened to Legal Aid's proposal to represent them, many talked

heatedly of compensation and responsibility.

"I am angry with Hun Sen", said Mak Sath, 35. "If he did not permit

the officials to sign the contract they would not do this".

"I am worried because I have no money and no plan", said Lan Chantheng,

a cart driver who opened a sack of waste with his mouth and suffered white discharge

from his eyes and mouth, as well as sickness and diarrhea. "I want compensation,

but I cannot sue them." He would be happy if Legal Aid could help him sue the

company that brought the waste to his home.

But Brandt said that Legal Aid's involvement was, for now, purely humanitarian. "At

this time we're not even contemplating action... but there may be a case, especially

regarding the fact that the people had to move because of the toxic dump being next

to their home", she said. "There's not much we can investigate regarding

the toxicity of the material. The government is conducting its own investigation."

The villagers, while grateful for the food donations, are desperate to return to

Bettrang and to resume normal lives. Yet they sense this may not be possible, at

least in the foreseeable future.

"Even if they collect all the poisonous waste, the poison will still have contaminated

the land", said Mak Sath.

Meanwhile, Khuan Rong is still nursing her ailing baby.

No-one can tell her whether his rash is as a result of the waste dump. Even the nurse

cannot tell her when he will get better. Her five other children play in the dust

and chew on the protein bars provided by WFP.

"I want to go home", she whispers. "If I cannot go home, I will have

no food. We all want to go home".

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