Blue tarpaulin hails new arrivals to Trapaing Anhchanh relocation site on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
Clustered together near the middle of the roughly 15-hectare site, the more than 40 families evicted from Borei Keila by military police in late December have begun constructing their homes—using blue tarps donated by the municipality as roofs.
Chhut Heng Kry, 38, who previously rented a home in the Borei Keila community near the Olympic Stadium, said there is a rumor that the 5- by 12-meter lot he was assigned actually belongs to someone else, but he isn’t sure.
“We have no choice but to start building,” he said during a break from hammering a sheet of woven reeds to the wall of his house-in-progress last week.
A few hundred meters across this village of ramshackle homes surrounded by dusty vacant lots, more than 130 families recently evicted from Russei Keo district have had a little more time to build sturdier shelters.
Relocated after their homes on Chroy Changvar peninsula were razed Nov 2, they have had a couple of months to rig corrugated steel sheets for walls and roofs, and employ thick logs for house frames.
Then there are the plots with the beginnings of brick foundations—though most seem to have been abandoned at four blocks high—which belong to the families that used to live in the area known as Sambok Chap.
The Sambok Chap residents have had about a year and a half to adjust to life in Trapaing Anhchanh—located in Dangkao district’s Trapaing Krasaing commune, about 25 km from the city center.
One of more than 40 relocation sites on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Trapaing Anhchanh, which is still without potable water, hygienic toilets and reliable electricity, has become a dumping ground for three communities evicted from central Phnom Penh, and another is on the way. Land has been cleared for the residents of the area known as Group 78, when they are evicted.
Currently located on 11,700 square meters of land in Phnom Penh’s central Tonle Bassac commune—and worth an estimated $14 million—Group 78 has received repeated eviction notices for which the deadlines have come and gone.
“Lots of Sambok Chap people sold their land because they had no ability to build a house [at Trapaing Anhchanh],” said Var Sophal, 39, mother of five and former Sambok Chap resident.
“At first I was upset and intended to sell. It is so far from the city. But my husband told me to be patient,” she said, adding that while they still do not have water, they have been able to build a toilet in the back of their house.
San Thoeun, 29-year-old former Sambok Chap resident, said only around 55 families comprised of her former neighbors remained at the site. Hundreds of plots at the site have been sold two and three times over, she said.
Her shop, conspicuous among the huddled abodes, is made of concrete and painted yellow with an accordion metal gate and glossy tile floor. She said she can make up to $100 a day from selling groceries and household wares.
“Sambok Chap was anarchy. I like it here,” she said, adding that while only 55 of the original more than 1,000 Sambok Chap families remain at the site, her family was able to purchase the lot next to the one they were given because they are middle-class.
“I am very happy that more people have come to live. I don’t care where they’re from,” San Thoeun said, adding that she hopes in the future Trapaing Anhchanh can develop into a small town.
A few grocery shops have sprouted up at Trapaing Anhchanh as well as a school and health clinic—both of which are in concrete buildings. A large Christian church stands near the entrance to the relocation site.
Chhut Heng Kry said he had never built a house from scratch before, and it has been helpful to look around at his neighbors’ houses and be able to ask their advice.
“We are all people who are used to living in the city. We have the same experience and are in the same situation…. We understand each other,” he said, adding that former Sambok Chap residents have also let him and his wife Ouk Dany use their toilets so they don’t have to relieve themselves in the fields surrounding the site.
Kuon Pech, 39, from Chroy Changvar, said other evictees at the site had received more assistance than his family.
“All we got was land. They got a better deal from the authorities,” Kuon Pech said, adding that Borei Keila families got bigger lots than his 4- by 10-meter plot, as well as a large plastic container for water, 20 kg of rice, six bottles of fish sauce, six bottles of soy sauce, a blue tarp and $25.
Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun said earlier this week that he hopes to send more families to the relocation site and that he is proud of those, like Var Sophal, who have committed to living at the site.
“We are quite satisfied with families who have struggled to live on at the relocation site to make a better life…. We are hopeful to send more families from Phnom Penh,” he said by telephone.
He said the land around the site is appreciating in value, as development from the center of the city peels outward, and there are definite plans to expand the capital 30 km in each direction.
“The current relocation site is going to be a town area in the near future, and better infrastructure is in the plans for development,” he said.
Mann Chhoeun also said that while materials for new arrivals at Trapaing Anhchanh to construct their own toilets are on the way, they will have to wait for their official land titles.
“Within five years, any families permanently living on the land will receive legal ownership of the land. We learned our lesson from the previous people who were evicted,” he said, apparently referring to Sambok Chap residents who sold their land after receiving titles in 2006.
Dangkao District Governor Krouch Phan said the construction of a garment factory on 53 hectares of land about 400 meters to the east of Trapaing Anhchanh should provide employment for hundreds.
“Our government, especially City Hall, is not going to dump those people in areas isolated from riches and the town area. But we need to develop step by step,” he said, adding that there are also plans to connect the site to the electricity grids and an irrigation system.
But Meas Kimseng, coordinator at local housing rights and infrastructure NGO Sakhum Teang Tnaut, said that development from the city center will take some time to spill over to Dangkao district.
“The city will extend to this area, but not quickly,” he said.
“We cannot guess when, it depends on the investors. There is not yet anything for them to invest in,” he said, adding that more development is occurring in the other direction—away from Dangkao, toward the Chroy Changvar peninsula where there is access to the river, better infrastructure and nearby markets.
In the meantime, before the future takes hold, there is the matter of the here and now.
David Pred, country director of human rights and development NGO Bridges Across Borders, said it is in everyone’s interest to provide basic services to relocation sites.
“If [the Cambodian authorities] do not address the socio-economic situation of the city’s evictees at relocation sites, they are going to continue to move back to the city. This is unavoidable,” he wrote by e-mail. “They could make an investment in basic infrastructure, affordable housing and business loans, vocational training, and subsidized transportation to the city center.”
Mam Kunthea, from Borei Keila, said she earns about $2.50 a day selling a plant that grows near Olympic Stadium, but now she spends about that same amount on fuel to get there and back, as well as a day’s sustenance.
Among her few possessions at Trapaing Anhchanh is a folder of documents proving her eligibility to receive an apartment in one of the onsite buildings at Borei Keila.
“Until a few weeks ago, I thought I was getting an apartment,” she said.
Gesturing to orderly rows of cement posts marking off tidy plots of land in the clearing behind her house, Mam Kunthea said she heard a rumor that the residents of Group 78 are on their way.