Light enters the cinema-turned-slum in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district through missing chunks of concrete near the cavernous ceiling. It is easier to see bats circling overhead than the families living below.
In the dark corridors of Cinema Hemacheat, a popular theater in the years before the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh, residents demarcate their domains with plywood and tattered tarps.
Candles serve as light for those who can’t afford the triple-price pirated electricity wired from nearby homes; with no running water, people carry bucketfulls all the way to the fifth and highest floor.
Against one wall, a mountain of an estimated 50 tons of trash and human waste serves as the communal garbage dump and toilet for about 100 families occupying the ground floor.
Makeshift shacks abut the base of the heap, their walls pressed against the pile of their neighbors’ refuse. At night, residents said, opportunistic rats nip at them as they sleep.
In the two-meter by three-meter room in which he lives with his wife, two children and brother, construction worker Sin Sisophan, 29, voiced a sentiment common to many of his neighbors.
“If an NGO wants to fix this place, make it a better system with electricity, we don’t want to leave. We’d rather live here. But if it’s going to stay like this, we’d rather move out,” he said late last month.
After more than 20 years as one of the city’s notorious slums, Cinema Hemacheat may soon receive attention from a coalition of human rights groups hoping to relocate some of nearly 200 families living there and renovate the building.
In his visit to Cambodia last month, UN human rights envoy Peter Leuprecht toured Hemacheat and was “shocked” by its condition, according to a UN statement.
UN-Habitat will submit a project proposal written on behalf of the Housing Rights Task Force to the UN Development Program, said Tuy Someth, national coordinator for UN-Habitat’s secure tenure campaign.
With the undetermined amount of money they hope to receive from UNDP, the task force wants to move half of the cinema’s families to one of three possible relocation sites on the city’s outskirts, and turn part of the cinema into office space for an NGO, Tuy Someth said.
Deputy municipal cabinet Chief Noun Sameth said the city is willing to contribute up to 40 percent of the cost of the relocation and resettlement land for the families.
“The city will give satisfactory land for them,” Noun Sameth said. “But now the city lacks money to buy land these people will be satisfied with.”
Residents said they were cool to the idea of being moved far from the center of town, where many scavenge for trash or seek work at the markets. The suggested relocation sites in Dangkao and Russei Keo districts are all about 14 km to 17 km from the city center.
“We can survive if we live here in the city because we have plenty of business,” said market vendor Ouk Rei, 52. “If we go to the countryside, we have no business. We would die.”