One week after a fire ripped through a Russei Keo district community, leveling the homes of more than 400 families, the smell of ash yesterday still hung heavy in the air as villagers were busy clearing mounds of rubble that were once their homes.
“I received the donation from the district governor. I received rice. I received fish sauce. I don’t want anything else. I just want the house,” said 30-year-old Nansy Ros, gesturing toward a cement frame covered with tarp—all that remains of her Chraing Chamreh II commune home.
Five days before the fire left her and more than 1,000 of her neighbors homeless, Ms Ros moved from a floating house on the Tonle Sap river to this riverbank community.
In order to buy the house, Ms Ros had to borrow $3,000 from friends, and it seemed like a worthwhile investment at the time: “When we lived in the floating house, I was afraid my son would fall off and drown,” she said, adding that she was also concerned for the baby she is due to deliver in several months.
Across the street, Ni Filine, 23, stood in the makeshift doorway of what’s left of the home she shared with 10 people. The stilted house is completely gone, only the frame of the bottom half remains, walled with corrugated metal.
Standing at her side, Ms Filine’s mother-in-law begins to cry.
“I’m just a widow. I don’t earn any money. I don’t know how we will build this house.”
“In terms of food, they are okay at the moment, but they really need shelter,” said Kim Rattana, executive director of Caritas, a Catholic aid agency, which is undertaking an assessment of the assistance needed. “People need support for building houses,” he said, echoing a sentiment shared by villagers interviewed yesterday.
Such support is slow in coming, however.
Phnom Penh director of the Cambodian Red Cross, Chhoeng Ngan, said that his organization, which has donated money, rice, tarps and more, had “no possibility of building the houses because it is too expensive.”
“The authority is seeking some donations from organizations, foreign embassies and generous people who are able to help or provide some materials for rebuilding the houses,” said Klaing Huot, governor of Russei Keo district.
Mr Huot added that rebuilding in the destroyed community has been delayed in order to give the government time to draw up a new design plan that would ensure the pathways are wide enough to allow fire trucks to pass through in the future.
When the fire broke out last Thursday morning, fire trucks came but were forced to remain parked on National Road 5, unable to enter the tightly packed community.
No construction is permitted, said Mr Huot, until the government finished drawing up plans.
Standing on a plot that backs onto National Road 5, 50-year-old El Sem directed six men as they spread cement and lay fresh bricks between a blackened cement frame.
“Even if they’re not giving permission [to rebuild],” he said resolutely. “I’ll just rebuild where I must live for temporary purposes.”