A Phnom Penh municipal government plan to help squatters dislodged from their homes by two massive fires this week will differ from a similar effort earlier this year, one that some relief workers now say was ineffective and dangerous because it tried to do too much, too fast.
The government has again offered the displaced squatters undeveloped land located far from the city’s center if they promise not to rebuild the urban shantytowns they lost.
The two fires this week, one on Monday behind the Bassac Theater and the other early Wednesday morning along the Bassac river, destroyed 2,500 households and made some 20,000 people homeless. “The scale of [resettlement], yes, is daunting,” said Peter Swan of the UN Center for Human Settlements. “We are gravely concerned that we can do it in a humane way and in a way that can protect these poor people.”
Swan, who works closely with the municipal government, said he plans to move quickly to see if the new land 30 km north of Phnom Penh can be properly prepared.
But aid agencies and the municipal government are already at odds over how best to help the squatters.
Mindful of a relocation effort after a similar fire in May that left the homeless far from markets, schools, pagodas and jobs, some local relief organizations have refused to follow an edict from the municipal government that aid be distributed only at relocation sites, not at the charred remains of the urban squatter villages.
“We cannot cooperate anymore,” said Samreth Sok Heng, coordinator of the Urban Resource Center, a Phnom Penh aid organization. “This is our stand, our strong stand.”
“This morning we have some instant noodles for fire victims [along the Bassac river near the Monivong Bridge], but the authorities would not let us give it out. We don’t want to give them at the new site. We wanted to distribute noodles [in Phnom Penh].”
Chun Ruk is the relocation site built to house 547 families who were left homeless after the May fire.
Nearly 50 percent of the families who first moved to the site have since left, according to aid workers. The site was so far from the city that people were vulnerable to armed robbers, who operated freely without police interference—since there were no police. During the rainy season, several children drowned at the site, aid workers said. The nearest market was 10 km away.
Meanchey district governor Chhun Chhoun asked victims Wednesday to go to the resettlement area in Dangkao district to register for land. The new site straddles Dangkao and Russei Keo districts, north of Phnom Penh. The land was formerly the site of a government-owned agricultural research center.
More than 100 families from Monday’s fire have already moved, according to Peou Samy, secretary general of the National Committee for Disaster Management. “The municipality is calling it voluntary, but they don’t really have a choice,” he said. “We requested the government to delay the relocation. We don’t want to repeat what happened before [when] the site wasn’t prepared and there was no infrastructure.”
On Wednesday tarps were scattered across the 154-hectare site. A few concrete structures with tin roofs housed a few lucky families.
“We will stay here temporarily,” said Chab Nimul, 47. “The only thing I’m worried about is business. The market that I worked at in Phnom Penh burned down, too. Now all I have is the shirt that I’m wearing, and that was just given to me.”
“My family has two women who are five and seven months pregnant. It was very difficult for them to come here,” said Ek Dara, 25, who worked as a motodup in Phnom Penh. “At night it’s very cold and there are lots of mosquitoes. We have no nets. It will be really difficult to raise those children here, without a market, school or hospital.”
The relocation has also been hampered by reports of conflict with existing residents.
“They wanted to take the land back from us,” said Khin Khan, 68. “It was hard to reach a solution. We know the government is poor and needs our help, too.
“Yesterday, when we went to harvest rice with scythes, the government officials from the city panicked because they thought we were attacking them for taking our land. But we were just harvesting rice,” he said, as people standing nearby burst out laughing.
Others said the needs of the new arrivals reminded them of another time in Cambodian history.
“You have to pity them,” said Khin Meas, 63. “We’ve all been victims before. Not long ago, Pol Pot evacuated everyone from the city and no one had any belongings either.”
(With reporting from Phann Ana, Brittany Sonnenberg and Matt McKinney)