A mid-morning fire razed a rooftop squatter village in the Daun Penh district near Phsar Thmei Tuesday, destroying more than 200 homes and flushing hundreds of people into the streets with everything they could carry.
The village of Lok Tanpa used to sit four stories above the street, atop a sprawling apartment building between streets 49 and 51. One of 20 or 30 rooftop villages in Phnom Penh, Lok Tanpa was by far the largest, housing some 1,050 people in wood and tin shacks.
Only one person was seriously injured, a police officer who was struck in the head by falling debris, authorities said. Witnesses reported other residents suffered minor burns and injuries from falling debris.
Eyewitnesses, residents and police agreed the fire started in the northwest corner of the block.
“In only 10 or 15 minutes the fire had reached everywhere,” said penal police officer So Sokoun, who was on the scene.
Of the 247 homes on the rooftop village, only 10 were spared, Commune Chief Veng Sokoun said.
The blaze began with a fire in an electrical circuit box, District Police Chief Phan Pheang and Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara said.
But many witnesses and residents of the village say the fire was started by a young boy who was cooking rice in his kitchen.
Eyewitness Eang Phaula claimed the boy was cooking rice in his kitchen when the fire began.
“The boy fled,” he said, “and suddenly the fire burned the wooden wall and the electricity box exploded. The fire spread [due to] the blowing wind and reached everywhere.
“I didn’t have enough water to put out the fire,” said Eang Phaula, who at 37 has found himself homeless. “I tried to put out the fire, but it spread so fast. All I have left is my trousers and t-shirt.”
Chea Sophara said the city will try to set up an emergency shelter with sanitation and water near the site for the 1,000-plus displaced residents.
“We have always been concerned with fires at this site, but the city had no choice in keeping the people at the rooftop village,” Chea Sophara said “The municipality doesn’t have enough money to move them or to help them.”
The city is considering moving the residents back onto the rooftop, adding that he had received no reports from NGOs that the village was a fire hazard, he said.
Deputy Fire Chief Sok Vannra blamed the severity of the blaze to a lack of fire fighting equipment.
“Phnom Penh only has six fire engines so it is difficult to put out the fire,” he said as his men were tying to contain the blaze. “I also request that people please pay attention to their children and don’t let the children cook by themselves,” he said.
Numerous explosions could be heard as the fire burned through the squatter area. Homeowners could be seen running out of the building carrying propane and freon tanks.
Onlookers and the occasional tourist mingled with the families in the confusion of the rescue effort. Every rooftop within sight was crowded with people watching the blaze. As the fire made its way along the perimeter of the block, families rushed in and out of the cluster of rooftop homes to save what they could.
In November 2001, two similar Phnom Penh fires gutted squatter camps behind the Bassac Theater and along the Bassac River, destroying 2,500 homes and displacing 20,000 people. Officials also called those fires accidental, but some residents reported seeing fireballs shot into at least one of the villages from a boat on the Bassac River.
Another fire destroyed a squatter village along Sothearos Boulevard in May 2001, leaving 2,700 homeless.
The village of Lok Tanpa was formed in the early 1980s when people who were forced out of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge began to return to the city.
At the time, the Vietnamese-backed government allowed the returnees to inhabit houses on a first-come first-serve basis. Because there were not enough houses to accommodate the returnees, families were forced to improvise.
In 1983, only 200 people lived on the Lok Tanpa site, but that number has since ballooned to more than 1,000.
Unlike other squatter camps, Lok Tanpa has not faced pressure from the municipality to relocate its residents.
However, Samreth Sokheng, of the NGO Urban Research Center said “the people downstairs were not happy with the squatters because they make environmental problems,” including sanitation problems.
The Urban Research Group provides assistance for squatter populations and has examined Lok Tanpa in the past. According to Samreth Sokheng, the NGO has been asked to attend an emergency meeting to discuss the fate of the squatters. The people in the village understood that it was a hazard, but that they have nowhere to go, he said.
(Additional reporting by Matt McKinney, Suy Se and David Kihara)