People Who Make a Difference

In the Daun Penh district near Phsar Thmei last March, a fire erupted in a rooftop squatter village. The blaze was strong, fanned by the wind, and the weak hoses of the Phnom Penh fire department could do little to slow the flames’ advance across the top of the block-long building.

More than 1,000 people lived on the roof when the fire began. By day’s end, no one would go home.

The fire ate through the village shack by shack, throwing a black stack of smoke into the sky. Panicked residents scurried in and out of their tumbledown houses to salvage what they could. Dazed residents appeared on the street below holding what they had managed to save: a satin pillow, a plastic fan, a cat.

Onlookers came by the hundreds to watch the drama unfold.

A man who had been watching the fire from the street suddenly ran into the building. He reappeared moments later on a third-floor balcony, kicked off his sandals and began to climb.

Above him on the roof appeared a woman. She was barely visible in the smoke and stood inside a wooden house that had not yet burned up, but soon would. Unable to escape or perhaps unwilling to leave her belongings, she looked out of a window and waved.

The crowd cheered as the man struggled. No nets waited to catch him if he fell. He had no ropes tied to his waist, but with a rock climber’s grace he swung his body around overhangs and made it to within a few meters of where the woman had appeared.

He was about to save her.

All too often in Cambodia this is how things must be done when disaster strikes: by a single person relying on wits and strength, often taking great risks. Emergency vehicles don’t work, no one has the money for training, or the life-saving services available in wealthier countries simply don’t exist.

The same could be said of the nation’s many struggles with rebuilding after decades of war: it takes an individual to overcome the ragged states of education and justice in Cambodia, or to preserve what others would kill, or to build where others would tear down.

In this issue of The Cambodia Daily WEEKEND, reporters and editors looked for people who had taken up that struggle, perhaps not as dramatically as someone who rushes into a fire, but in ways that deserved mention nonetheless.

In the pages that follow, readers will learn about eight individuals in Cambodia who inspire, teach, save and create. Some are waging a battle of preservation, whether it’s against the death of an art form or of an endangered species. Others are merely doing what they can to help in a terrible situation.

We chose these people for who they are and what they have done. None of them asked for this attention, but all were gracious when interviewed about their lives.

That people like these exist in Cambodia can be reason for hope: there are many fires burning here, real and figurative, that will require thousands of heroes to fight.

For now, we have the people described in the following stories to thank, for heroes often leave before we realize what they’ve done.

On the day that thousands of squatters lost their homes to fire, a man clinging to the side of a building nearly saved a woman’s life: He reached the roof only to find her house empty. She had found another escape. His risks had been for nothing.

He climbed back down to the street, put on his sandals, and waded into the crowd.

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