Blaze Destroys Phnom Penh Squatter Area

A late afternoon fire gutted a squatter neighborhood behind the Bassac Theater Monday, destroying thousands of wooden shacks and sending hordes of people fleeing toward the main streets with whatever belongings they could grab as the flames quickly consumed the tightly packed homes.

A slight wind off the river and a lack of fire trucks doomed the neighborhood, according to witnesses who said they saw only four fire engines in action.

In the space of an hour at the height of the blaze, two fire en­gines were seen speeding to the flaming homes, while another left to refill its tanks near the National Assembly.

Authorities had no reports of deaths or injuries. Chamkar Mon district Deputy Governor Kuoch Chamroeun said an estimated 2,400 homes burned, leaving countless thousands homeless.

Some of the fire victims were to be housed Monday night at the Bassac Theater, itself a victim of fire, Kuoch Chamroeun said.

One local police chief said the blaze started when a propane gas cooker exploded, but other witnesses said two young boys playing with matches accidentally set fire to their shack somewhere in the middle of the neighborhood.

“We got out, but only with our lives,” said Ros Phally, 47, who said he and his family lost everything in the blaze, which began only two houses away from their home.

For some, the fire came as the second hard blow in less than a week. Soun Bophal, 26, who was employed by a karaoke club, abruptly found herself out of work after the government shut down many of the country’s nightspots on Friday.

After losing her job, soun Bophal came to the Chamkar Mon neighborhood to live with her sister. She said she also lost all her belongings in the fire. “Now I have nothing,” she said.

This latest blaze comes seven months after a similarly devastating fire tore through another squatter neighborhood that once stood a few hundred meters away on Sotheros Boulevard, leaving some 2,700 people homeless.

Some victims at the time accused the government of using the fire to push them out of the neighborhood—an unsightly jumble of scrap wood and corrugated tin roofs—in order to make way for a park.

Though there was never any direct evidence of this, the remains of the neighborhood were cleared in the days after the fire and grass planted in what is now a triangular park running along Sotheros Boulevard.

Many of those who lost homes in the May blaze were offered plots of land far outside the city, where a makeshift village has gone up.

Officials said they are not sure what the long-term solution will be for those who lost homes Monday.

(Additional reporting by Seth Meixner)



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