Fires Destroy Homes of City’s Poor

When it gets too hot, he runs back to the relative safety of a corrugated tin overhang and squats while several other men douse him with what water is left trickling from his hose.

Someone shouts that the water pressure is back up, and he races toward the flames again, body stretched and hose held out as far as in front of him as he can get it—as close as possible to the inferno that is devouring his neighborhood.

Flames gutted a Meanchey district neighborhood early Wednesday morning, only two days after fire flattened a squatter community behind the Bassac theater. In the space of two days, thousands of Phnom Penh’s poorest lost their homes.

But this man isn’t thinking right now about those thousands. The buildings around him groan as they come apart under the flames—pieces of tin roof, hot enough to glow a dull red, tear off and roll edge-over-edge over porches or float onto the street, almost gently, carried by the convective for­ces of the blaze.

A muffled roar is building from the crowd watching him from the end of the small street. Dozens of people back away from the heat, crouching to avoid the embers that fall from the sky, watching the flames creep around the eaves of the next roof and erupt from a window with a sudden crack.

He runs back one more time, dropping the hose where he stood, and doubles over in the shadows. Another man runs forward, taking weak aim at the flames that have consumed another home on their march through the tightly packed neighborhood.

Not far away, past the Chbar Ampou market, the street is choked with motos and carts heavy with household goods. Hundreds troop across the Moni­vong bridge carrying baskets, televisions and mattresses. Some look stricken; others pause at the bridge rail to watch. Behind them the shoreline burns like a city sacked.


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