Massive Blaze Leaves Thousands Homeless in Phnom Penh

A massive fire destroyed more than 450 homes in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district on April 11 leaving some 2,000 people homeless but no deaths were reported, authorities said.

More than 18 fire trucks eventually responded to the blaze, which raged for hours after being first discovered at around 5 am in Toek Thla commune’s Boeng Chhouk village, located a short distance from Preah Kossamak Hospital.

“The fire started in the middle and spread out like a flower,” commune chief Tan Navin said of the blaze, which engulfed hundreds of modest wooden homes that had been built over a shallow lake since the early 1990s.

Ouk Damry, deputy president of the Cam­bo­dian Red Cross, estimated that more than 2,000 people lost their homes in the fire. He said he was not aware of any serious injuries, but some people sustained burns.

The Red Cross will provide tents, rice, clothing, and cooking equipment for those left homeless and will coordinate the distribution of emergency assistance with the municipality, he said.

“We are looking for generous people to help,” he added.

By noon Friday, shell-shocked residents walked through smoldering ruins of wood and corrugated steel roofs to collect pots and pans and scrap metal from where their homes once stood.

Suon Sopheak, chief of the Phnom Penh municipal fire department, said authorities did not yet know what started the fire and that narrow paths leading to the village had made it difficult to fight the flames.

“We could not get to the heart of the fire,” he said.

Several residents, who said they lost everything, expressed anger at the authorities, alleging that firefighters demanded money before they would do their work.

“The firefighters asked for money from victims. Everybody knows about that,” said Poung Narin, 29, who lost her home.

“They just watched at first and asked for money,” said a 22-year-old who declined to be named. “If the firefighters had come on time and helped quickly it would not have turned out like this,” he added.

Suon Sopheak said that he didn’t know if some firefighters had asked for money as several trucks were not under his control.

Map Sarin, deputy governor of Phnom Penh, said the municipality was seeking a temporary location for the fire victims to stay.

“We do not have a place for them yet, but we will finish it before the Khmer New Year,” he said.

By Friday afternoon, a now homeless Sok Houy, 47, held a scorched metal box containing $6,000 in badly burned and wet banks notes. She had pulled her savings box from the rubble of her home and restaurant.

“With my money burned, I don’t know what I will do with my future,” Sok Houy said, recounting how she escaped the inferno with her two children, her sister and four nephews.

“I was so afraid that I forgot to take my [money],” she said of her savings.

(additional reporting by Tim Sturrock)


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