Forced from their homes by a calamitous fire that tore through a squatter’s district on Friday, dozens of city-dwelling families have migrated to a vacant plot of land in the country 20 km from their once bustling neighborhood to start over.
Their new village, set in a former rice field, is little more than a collection of ramshackle tents hastily built over the weekend from tarps and bamboo poles. Men hacked at the earth with shovels on Monday to create drinking wells. No one has electricity.
The site, called Chumrup, was chosen and paid for by the government, both to give the squatters a new home and to clear their old neighborhood south of Sihanouk Boulevard along Sisowath Quay for construction of a public garden, which is scheduled to begin in two weeks.
Pilgrims in a new land, or subjects in a government experiment at village building, the families who trekked to Chumrup over the weekend were sometimes confident and sometimes apprehensive about their future on Monday.
Like Mom Narin, who has no water or toilet, some are happy at least to live somewhere where fires are less likely.
“Where we are is a good envronment and we no longer miss the squatter camp in 15 village,” said Mom Narin, referring to the name some had given to the squatter settlement in Phnom Penh.
Waiting for the families at the land, located north of National Road 4, is a 7 meter by 15 meter plot marked off with plastic tape. The government bought the land from several farmers one week ago for $160,000, according to Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara. He said Prime Minister Hun Sen gave him enough money to buy 8 hectares of land.
Each family also receives a pot and two bowls, two spoons, a plastic bucket, some wood and a tarp from the city government. The royal family donated 50 kg bags of rice to the squatters, who had stored some of them under their tarps by Monday afternoon.
“I feel confident,” said Chan Sokhon, 49, a refugee from the squatter village. “I am very happy to live here, but we have nothing to build the new settlement. Now I am focusing only on how to earn money.”
Chea Sophara said three garment factories nearby should provide some work, but there is little else in the area. The closest market is some 10 km away. A school less than 1 km away may have room for some students, but the fire displaced 2,700 people.
Chea Sophara said government officials plan to build a school in three months.
Many of the people who lost their homes in the fire worked as motorbike taxi drivers or construction workers in Phnom Penh, so leaving the city means the loss of a job.
Ek Dara, 32, looked at the settlement on Monday and said it was better than he expected, but he planned to keep his family in Phnom Penh.
“Here is good, but if we compare it to the city, it’s not good,” he said.
He continues to live in the squatter area where city officials plan to build the public garden, and it’s not clear what will happen in two weeks time when construction begins. Chea Sophara has said the city will negotiate with the squatters who remain.
Others had little choice but to leave the city. Sim Sen, 67, said he lived in the squatter camp since 1990, in a 5-meter-by-12-meter house. He rented rooms to girls who sold fruit around the city before he lost everything in the fire.
“It was easy for me to earn money from the squatter house, but now I live here. I need to work hard to earn money for the living conditions. But here I am not worried about fire,” he said.
Building a house and a water system are important for the settlers, said Kim Sengyada, 42, who has a family of nine.
“For me, I feel safe for my family and my children. I stop worrying about fire every night. We are feeling confident, but we need the governor of Phnom Penh to set up a water system and electricity.”
As for electricity, the villagers will have to wait.
Chea Sophara said he wants to see the water wells dug as soon as possible, to complement a small pond near the village, but electricity will not go to the village, since it is too far from the city, he said.
“I want to add many more wells,” said Chea Sophara. “I will build toilets and a concrete span for a dam.”
The city’s plan for the settlement called for a community center and market area, but it’s not clear if those plans will ever come through. Chea Sophara said the market located 10 km away was “not so far.”
Whatever becomes of Chumrup, life will not be easy there for at least the next few weeks.
Sitting under a stretched tarp to shield herself from sun and rain, Chen Da, 22, said she would see how long she could last in her family’s new home. She drives a motorbike to the Singapore Press magazine publishing factory in Phnom Penh to work every day.
The family sleeps together on the ground, avoiding the puddles when it rains. A storm on their first night in Chumrup ripped a hole in their new tarp.
“For the poor people, life is like that,” she said.