Amid the ash and flattened, smoking debris that used to be their homes, villagers stood watching as three women struggled to cover the burned corpse of an old man with a white sheet—so far the only victim of the second fire this week to devastate a Phnom Penh squatter village.
With what appeared to be only four fire engines racing between the Meanchey district fire near Phsar Chbar Ampav and water hydrants on the Phnom Penh side of the Monivong Bridge, firefighters early Wednesday morning battled both crowded narrow streets and failing water pressure as they tried to keep the blaze from spreading.
Police estimate 790 families were burned out of their homes, bringing the total number of people left homeless by blazes this week to around 9,000.
Wednesday’s early morning fire followed a blaze Monday that gutted another squatter village, behind the Bassac Theater, leaving an estimated 2,700 people homeless.
Police said Wednesday’s fire began when a gas cooker exploded, and that flames quickly spread to the roofs of nearby homes in a cramped neighborhood of wooden shacks and concrete homes.
“There was a big ‘bang’ and then the flames came,” said Moeung Hiv, who oversees about 160 families living in a part of the settlement that didn’t burn.
But the flames did rage quickly across the neighborhood, as firefighters scrambled to back their trucks down the few roads where they could fit, staying long enough to empty their water tanks before being forced to find more water.
By 2 am it was clear the fire was out of control, with flames reaching high into the sky and jumping streets to set fire to rows of homes along the shore of the Bassac river.
When the fire trucks would back away, panicked or angry villagers ran into the heat, hurling chunks of ice or concrete into the flames.
As former residents sifted through still hot embers or sorted piles of blackened trash, one man sat dazed on a piece of corrugated tin, shaded from the morning sun by a mat tied to a charred metal frame.
“We had nowhere to run. Some people ran into the river with their belongings,” said the man, who has lived in the community since 1982.
On the edges of the burnt-out village, houses still standing were crowded with people looking for news or food.
One older woman shooed people away from her moto while handing out rice.
A mother of three, So Mary, sat nearby. “I have nothing,” she said. “I don’t know what to do. How do I live?”