Thousands Living in Limbo at ‘Village of Waiting’

Ask people, especially women, in Dangkao district’s Andoung Thmei community, where they go to the bathroom and they will giggle, wave their arms vaguely towards whatever scraggly bushes or trash-strewn field happens to be nearby and say: Wherever no one is looking.

More than 1,800 families live in Andoung Thmei, and for about two weeks now they haven’t had access to a single toilet.

On Nov 14, the unidentifed owner of several fields adjacent to Andoung Thmei, which has served as a squalid home for those evicted from Phnom Penh’s Tonle Bassac commune since June, pushed more than 400 families off his land, villagers and NGO workers said.

That wouldn’t be so bad, they added, if their toilets hadn’t been on that land, which is now being fenced off by a tall brick wall. Villagers also said they had covered over some toilets themselves because they were so crudely made and smelled so bad.

Andoung Thmei has become a village of waiting. People are waiting for toilets, waiting for water, and most importantly, waiting for land.

“If we go out and the aid person comes, if there’s no one here, we don’t get a donation,” villager Ray Srey Noch, 30, said. “And if we’re not here when the authorities come to divide up the land, we’re afraid we won’t get any,” she said.

A strip of thatch houses runs down the center of Andoung Thmei, where plots of land have already been allocated and people have put up permanent shelters. But on either side, the village careens off into a welter of tarpaulin lean-tos and muddy puddles of trash. Flies are everywhere.

The mathematics of the land allocation does not look promising.

Heng Deur, 43, the chief of Andoung Thmei community, said 1,820 families arrived in June, but only 777 plots of land have been staked out. He said 442 of the 574 families officially registered before the mass eviction of Tonle Bassac commune’s Sambok Chap and Kak Ampov villages have been allocated land. Everyone else-more than 1,000 families-is squeezed onto the suddenly smaller unclaimed area.

Mann Chhoeun, deputy municipal governor, said all the registered villagers have received plots of land, and most of those who did not were simply land-grabbing late arrivals who falsely claimed they had rented houses in Tonle Bassac.

“It’s not fair to say the authority is non-humanitarian,” he said, adding, “don’t compare it with Pol Pot.”

Water is a major problem at Andoung Thmei. Down a narrow, pitted dirt road from the village is a well, surrounded by muddy pools of garbage, which is a lively center of bathing, washing and drinking. Villagers say that by late afternoon, the well is dry. “There is not enough water from that well,” said villager Rous Vanna, 41. “It’s finished for us.”

Near the road leading from the well are five large blue water drums, but only two had water in them on Thursday and there was only one tap. Two NGO workers said they had seen the drums filled from a nearby pond and claimed the water was undrinkable.

Mann Chhoeun said 16 toilets had been built for the community and he was unaware they had been covered over since the nearby landowner blocked access to his property. The city, he said, was investigating the possibility of building a new well and water system. “I will ask for a report from the district,” he added.

But the increasing crowding and decreasing sanitation has already caused a spike in the incidence of diarrhea among residents, said Nhean Sarin, a doctor provided by local rights group Licadho who has been serving the community since June.

Normally, he said, about 40 percent of the 250 to 300 people he sees each week have diarrhea; this week at least 70 percent have. He said respiratory, digestive, and skin infections were also on the rise. He estimated that 40 percent of the children he sees at Andoung Thmei are malnourished.

“It’s normal for us that we are poor,” said a former community leader from Tonle Bassac who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But making money is harder because we are far from the city. Now the beggars are begging from the poor,” he said.

 

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