The former state-run orphanage Kolap 1 is an unusual place—it is filled with “orphans” who have grown well beyond childhood. Today, they continue to live within the walls of the Kolap 1 compound as husbands, fathers, mothers and wives.
“When I came here in 1979 I was an orphan. Now I am a grandmother!” says 40-year-old Rim Sopheas, laughing in the courtyard of an abandoned school building that her family of six calls home.
As she speaks, four enormous cooking pots boil in the background while three large, black roosters peck and strut around the yard. Playing cards litter the floor and hammocks are strung in a criss-cross fashion inside former classrooms.
Rim Sopheas is lucky to have a spacious home. Almost every bit of available space has been moved into or built upon at Kolap 1, and most of its inhabitants must make do with smaller digs.
But the 300 families currently living within Kolap 1’s 1 square-km compound may soon be forced to find new homes, if the Ministry of Women’s and Veteran’s Affairs has its way. The ministry, which now keeps its temporary offices in a building next to TV 5’s headquarters, intends to make Kolap 1 its permanent home.
While Kolap 1’s orphans worry about what action the ministry will take, the ministry is concerned for its own future. With her well-manicured hand, Ministry of Women’s Affairs Secretary of State You Ay waves a letter from the Council of Ministers urging the ministry to move as soon as possible.
“We share the concern of the people,” You Ay says. “We don’t want to remove them if they have no place to stay. But they must understand that they are living there illegally.”
Orphans like Rim Sopheas started settling at Kolap 1 in the chaotic, rootless months following the January 1979 toppling of the Pol Pot regime. Most Cambodians spent much of that year roaming the country, looking for lost relatives and making their way back to their homeland.
Thousands of children had lost their entire families—parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, uncles and aunts. Some of them made up a group of 105 orphans who were found wandering toward Phnom Penh along Route 5.
Vietnamese soldiers took them to Kolap 1, located in Daun Penh district near the remnants of the then-destroyed Chroy Changva Bridge. In the following years, the number of orphans sent to the newly formed state-run orphanage continued to grow. By 1985, Kolap 1 was filled to capacity with 520 orphans.
Built in the 1950s, it was the site of Providence College, a school run by French Catholic nuns in the 1960s. During the Lon Nol period, it became a state-run school.
Three large dormitories, a dining hall, a school, an administrative building and an elegant colonial-style church still stand. The yellow paint that once colored the walls of the original buildings are now only visible in slivers.
In the 1980s the church was turned into a dormitory and rows of beds lined its interior. Now it is home to 15 families who, using plywood and brick, have fenced off small, private areas for themselves.
One woman lives in the area that was once the church’s altar. Her cooking pots rest on intricately patterned mosaic tiles. A massive pillar occupies the corner near her door. Chalk writing on the door of one room says it is for sale for $400.
Roth Puleu, a 40 year-old factory worker and a 22-year resident of Kolap 1, rents out his room in the church for $15 a month—a much needed supplement to his $15 monthly wage. He lives with his wife, a fellow orphan, in a house built on another part of the compound.
When asked if he likes living at Kolap 1, he says, “We have no choice. That is why we live here.”
Most of these homes were built by orphans who grew into young adulthood and began to marry in the mid-1980s. With no land to farm or older family members to offer support, the young couples simply stayed at the orphanage, creating adult lives at Kolap 1.
“There were a lot of problems at that time and the government knew that the children had nowhere to go,” says Ngin Sokrawa, the former director of Kolap 1. “Also, we did not have a law to say how old they were when they had to leave. We just collected people.”
When the orphans began to marry, the helter-skelter construction of makeshift homes and walled-off rooms began.
“They just wouldn’t stop building,” Ngin Sokrawa says. “If I asked them to stop they just kept on. If I had used the police to stop them, well, that would look very bad because I am their father.”
One of those couples was Tep Sovann, 28, and her husband. Now a nurse at Calmette Hospital, she has never been asked to leave, and wouldn’t know where to go if she were forced out, she says.
Throughout the 1990s the number of child orphans at the center dwindled, due in part to an increase in NGO-run orphanages.
By 1999, when there were just 86 child orphans at Kolap 1, the government closed the center. In January 2000, ownership of the property was transferred from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
Now, there is no access to free water and electricity. But families have been allowed to stay indefinitely because the government knows they have nowhere else to go, Ngin Sokrawa says.
The fact that residents do not own their homes in the legal sense—they have no land titles—makes them nervous about the future, they say. Many families have sold their homes, sometimes for thousands of dollars, and moved elsewhere.
You Ay says the majority of the people living at Kolap 1 these days are not orphans—and this is something Kolap 1 residents readily acknowledge. Thirty-seven families have one member who is an orphan, and there are just 12 families in which both the mother and father are orphans, You Ay says.
“This an anarchic area,” You Ay says. “Some sold their homes and took the money to build another house in the same place. Then they try and sell that.”
It seems likely the dispute over Kolap 1 will be resolved with government money rather than official force.
You Ay and a committee she heads to resolve the issue have recommended the residents be given enough money to start a new life elsewhere. She adds that the ministry does not need all the land, and some families may be allowed to remain.
The Ministry of Finance has agreed to the cash settlement idea “in principle,” You Ay says, and the municipality has been asked to find the people new land. “I think it is better for them to have money and land than to be in this illegal situation,” says You Ay.
But for now, the people of Kolap 1 are saying no. This is their home, they say. It is no longer an orphanage, but it has become a sort of village, Tep Sovann says.
“My friends have gotten married and had children,” she says. “And we are all still together.” (Additional reporting by Phann Ana)