Family’s Garden, Lives May Be Uprooted

If all the plans for the Olympic Stadium go through this year, Vong Sambok’s family home will be destroyed, his garden razed, and an “entertainment center” will eventually take their place.

Yet unlike the 21 families who work at Olympic Stadium and have already lost their homes, Vong Sambok’s is not a family of squatters, according to a Cambodian law.

He says his family owns this property.

Vong Sambok, 31, and his family came to live at the Olympic Stadium in July, 1979, after weathering the Khmer Rouge years in their home province of Kandal.

Vong Sambok’s uncle, Kao Thon, then director of the stadium, invited Vong Sam­bok’s mother and father to work as stadium gardeners and to live on stadium grounds.

Since then, the family of six has made its home in the southeast corner of the stadium complex, not far from where football and tennis players used to square off each day.

Their humble homestead is a strange sight for Phnom Penh—it has the look and feel of a home in the provinces.

Broad-leafed trees surround the elevated wooden house and keep the noise of nearby Sihanouk Boulevard at bay. To the south, an immaculate garden stretches out.

“I have used this land for 21 years,” says Vong Sambok, gesturing over his vegetable beds. “I sold its vegetables to pay for English school.”

Now, Vong Sambok’s parents are retired, and he supports the family as a chief of search and rescue at the Secretariat of Civil Aviation. It is up to him to protect the family home.

In 1989, ten years after the family moved here, the Council of Ministers passed a subdecree to privatize residential land. All land had been state-owned up to that point.

The subdecree said people owned the land they lived on in 1989 as soon as they registered it with district authorities.

Vong Sambok says the measure leaves     little room for doubt about who owns his plot.

“I support the government policy that we rebuild the country,” says Vong Sambok as he sits at his dinner table. But he has a hard time grappling with the fact that he must lose his home for this part of the effort.

The government has offered the family $3,000 to compensate for the loss of their home. But Vong Sambok says finding a home comparable to his place at the stadium would cost about $10,000.

“My family has served the country for 21 years. That is worth more than $3,000,” he says.

But money is not his first concern.

“We need a place to live, not money,” Vong Sambok says. “I don’t want to take this opportunity to build a big villa with a Land Cruiser, I just want a place for my family to live.”

Most of all, Vong Sambok is afraid of an uncertain future. A worried look clouds his face; his eyes glaze over.

“I don’t know where I’ll go,” he says. “The government is very poor—they don’t have money for my family.”

Bou Chum Serey, the Education Ministry official who is overseeing the stadium’s transition, has little consolation for the family. He flatly says they no longer own the land near the stadium.

The government in 1995 offered parcels of land on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to families who worked at Olympic Stadium. Vong Sambok’s family accepted one of these parcels, which means they voided their claims to the land near the stadium, Bou Chum Serey says.

Vong Sambok says he is unaware that he ever gave up his land at the stadium. He says the land the government gave his family is a 30 meter by 25 meter rice field, which is under water throughout the rainy season and which has no road leading to it.

“If Bou Chum Serey wants to live there, then I’ll go live there with him. I’ll be his neighbor,” Vong Sambok says.

As of Wednesday, Vong Sambok’s family was still living on the stadium grounds, three days after the stadium had been officially closed.

All a determined Vong Sambok says he can do is wait.

“I will stay here until I have a resolution or until someone tells me to leave.”

 

 

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