As Sok Deit, 38, tears apart the remains of his collapsed roof, he pulls out the rusty nails with his hammer and throws them into a pile in the dirt. He says he will use these nails again when he rebuilds his house because at 40 riel—or $0.01—each, he cannot afford to buy new ones.
Heavy rainstorms crushed Sok Deit’s bamboo hut last week and damaged about 167 other homes in the Anlong Kong Thmei community of Prey Sar commune in rural Dangkao district—located more than 14 km from the center of Phnom Penh.
Homes that were hardest hit by the storms lay completely flattened on their lots, while others remain flooded or knocked off their foundations.
Sok Deit’s house was blown over on its side. The only pieces left intact are the twisted stilts, which once held up the rest of the structure, and what used to be the hut’s floor.
While Sok Deit tries to salvage the reusable remains, his wife Kan Keo, 35, sits in the shade beneath the stilted floor and watches as her four small children wander amid the rubble.
The youngest, twins of age 3, play naked among the dirt, using bamboo pieces blown from the house as makeshift toys.
“When I felt the storm hit the house, I grabbed the twins one under each arm and fled,” Kan Keo says.
For a while, the family of six took refuge next door, but because their neighbor’s one-room hut was already too crowded, they were asked leave.
They have since been sleeping under what’s left of their house with no mats, no furniture and no stove. An empty ceramic bowl, a broom, and a small tub of dirty water holding a few items of laundry are the only visible possessions on their lot.
The collapse of their hut is only the latest disaster Sok Deit’s family has had to face.
Like most of the 452 families in the Anlong Kong Thmei community, they had been squatting in an area along the Tonle Bassac in Phnom Penh until a fire ripped through the area in November 2001, destroying their home.
The families were relocated by the government in February 2002 to this new community outside the city and were granted small, 8-meter-by-14-meter plots of land on which to rebuild their lives.
Employment within Anlong Kong Thmei is limited, however. Many of its inhabitants must travel to Phnom Penh to earn money.
As a construction worker, Sok Deit is paid 7,000 riel (about $1.75) a day in the city. But after the expenses of traveling to and from the capital, his wife says he brings home only about 2,000 riel (about $0.50)—a drop in the bucket, considering the family has accumulated about $250 worth of debt.
Kan Keo says she had originally borrowed $100 from another Anlong Kong Thmei villager, but her family has been unable to repay it. Nor can they afford the interest on the loan, which is an exorbitant $30 per month, she says.
Now, the family must consider selling their government-issued plot of land along with their ruined house to pay off their creditor.
Kan Keo and her neighbors say other more well-off villagers often take advantage of the poorer inhabitants.
“There is a lot of corruption here,” she says.
Disaster relief efforts from government and aid organizations have only made relations worse within the community.
According to Chhoeng Ngam, executive director of the management team for the Cambodian Red Cross, efforts last week to distribute relief packages to the storm victims in Anlong Kong Thmei were thwarted after villagers demanded aid for the entire community.
Chhoeng Ngam said one Red Cross volunteer was injured during a distribution attempt June 30 after an angry mob attacked a relief team.
He said only about 43 families affected by the storms have received aid from his organization. The rest of the distribution has been put off indefinitely.
Some storm victims had already received aid from the Phnom Penh municipality and the Royal Palace, while other NGOs have also offered to help, Chhoeng Ngam said.
Kan Keo says her family was able to receive 50 kg of rice, 50,000 riel (about $12.50) and some tarp from the Royal Palace.
But, she says, “Some people took donations for their own relatives. They don’t give them to the victim families.”
In this community, village politics take precedence over national politics. There is little interest in the July 27 general elections, and some say they feel the political candidates have little interest in them.
“There are no election campaigns here, no rallies, no parades,” said Yin Kim Choeun, 37.
She says she has seen only members of the CPP visit Anlong Kong Thmei and bring clothes for some members of the community.
“Whoever feeds them here, the people will vote for them,” she says.
In nearby Tuol Roka Koh village, which is also a community of relocated squatters, Sok Hong, 45, echoes her sentiment.
“We are not political people. We are thinking of our stomachs first,” says Sok Hong, who also lost her home to the recent storms.
But she says she hopes whoever wins in the elections will help her village. Her wish list for them is long: a hospital, electricity, a water supply, an end to corruption and judicial reform.
“I want to appeal to the new government to please come to the village,” she says. “We have no money, no jobs. We are living in very hard conditions.”