One year ago this Sunday, the last remaining residents at Phnom Penh’s Dey Krahorm community were violently evicted.
Families barricaded the streets surrounding the slum and lobbed stones. Police retaliated with batons and tear gas. In the end, workers razed hundreds of ramshackle houses, loaded the non-compliant residents onto trucks and cleared everything away.
Today, save weeds and garbage, there is almost nothing on those 3.6 hectares of contested land in the city’s Tonle Bassac commune, just a stone’s throw from the National Assembly and Australian Embassy.
Behind the metal fence surrounding what used to be the Dey Krahorm community there is no hint of what happened on Jan 24, 2009. But for those who lived through that violent day, the memory is as fresh as ever.
“It was a brutal action,” said Orn Chana, a former resident of Dey Krahorm. “When we recall what happened, we are very angry.”
Since the forced clearance last year of the 150 families who had been holding our for a better compensation deal, Ms Chana, 38, has been living at Damnak Trayoeng, the site on the outskirts of the capital where residents were relocated.
There are concrete streets and a small market at Damnak Trayoeng, access to electricity and water, and enough remove from the nearest main road to be quiet.
Many who agreed to move here voluntarily from Dey Krahorm are getting along fine. For Ms Chana and the other final holdouts, this place represents a disastrous moment. There is no upshot. Dey Krahorm may have been a slum, but it was where Ms Chana preferred to live.
“There is nothing at all positive here. We have tried to live here only because we don’t have a choice. We don’t have money to buy a home in Phnom Penh,” Ms Chana said.
“The house isn’t good. The quality is poor-it leaks when it’s raining. Look at this,” she said, tracing a finger along the floor. “There are ants everywhere, the tiles are breaking apart.”
Ms Chana’s house is at the edge of the development for relocated and evicted families about 20 minutes drive beyond Phnom Penh International Airport.
In front of her house is a long vista of unfarmed field. Cows graze on the scrubland, and when families are really hard up for food they send their children out to gather snails.
Behind Ms Chana’s house is row upon row of identical, single-story, cookie-cutter homes.
In one area live residents who were relocated from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak lake area, in another, more Dey Krahorm villagers who settled in the project early on. But many of the homes are still empty, locked, untouched, and likely awaiting the next community to be relocated or evicted ahead of the next urban development project undertaken by the firm 7NG, which was responsible for clearing Dey Krahorm and owns both the empty land where the community once stood and this relocation site.
Nhem Phalla, 42, sits outside her whitewashed brick house in Damnak Trayoeng waiting for her four eldest children to trickle home from school.
As she recounts last year’s eviction, her voice is steely.
“I couldn’t bring anything. I was worried about my children’s security so I could collect only them,” Ms Phalla said.
“He was vomiting for two days after because of the tear gas,” she said, gesturing to her three-year old son.
Like Ms Chana, Ms Phalla blames both the government and the 7NG company for her shoddy treatment.
And also like Ms Chana, she recounted that before the last national election Prime Minister Hun Sen promised the residents of Dey Krahorm-a poor area know for its loyalty to the ruling CPP-that they could develop their own onsite relocation plan, which would have seen them share the space with 7NG. But the premier’s pre-election promises were just that, they said.
“I hate the company and the government. If the company did not have the support of the government they could not do this,” Ms Phalla said.
“All I wanted was a reasonable compensation so we could buy a house in Phnom Penh,” she added. “I have a lot of children. I’m worried about their health. There we were close to the hospital and close to the schools.”
On Sunday, she and Ms Chana, along with perhaps 100 other former Dey Krahorm residents, will hold a rally in front of what used to be their homes in Tonle Bassac.
“We will celebrate the anniversary to show the government that we still remember the eviction,” said Chan Vichet, who was once an organizer and representative of the Dey Krahorm holdout families.
“We want to show the public the violation when they took our legal land,” he explained of Sunday’s commemoration.
And likely watching the Dey Krahorm commemoration from their apartments on Sunday-just as they watched the violent eviction one year ago-will be many residents of the “Building,” which occupies a precarious strip in the 7NG-owned land, and which many believe is also destined for eviction by city planners.
“We know that 7NG also plans to buy this building, but they haven’t set a price for the land,” said a resident of the apartment block who wished not to be named. “We’re worried the same thing will happen here,” she said on Friday.