Chan Thorn woke up last week with a rat gnawing on her big toe.
But she did not panic. Instead, she did what she has done seven times before: She wiped the blood away, treated the wound and went back to sleep.
“There are too many rats to kill them all,” Chan Thorn said Sunday, showing the scars on her fingers and toes from previous rat bites.
There are 88 families squatting either inside or atop the Hem Cheat theater on the corner of streets 130 and 15 in the heart of Phnom Penh. They have become accustomed to the army of rats attacking them at night.
They have also become used to feeling ill. The 38 families living inside the huge, unlit theater have even adapted to the stench coming from the 5-meter pile of human waste and trash stacked in one corner of the abandoned theater.
Despite all the hardships Chan Thorn suffers through—the hundreds of bats that defecate on her home day and night, the pitch blackness, the filth—she is refusing to move to a squatter relocation site the city bought several weeks ago. Chan Thorn’s reason for staying, she said, is a matter of life or death.
“We live day to day here,” Chan Thorn said. “If we do not make enough money to eat one day, we can always go to the street and forage for beer cans. But if we move to the [relocation site], we will have nothing. We will starve to death.“
The municipality is adamant the squatters move. In late March, after a fire swept through the nearby block Tanpa rooftop squatter village and left an estimated 1,050 people homeless, the city paid $140,000 for approximately 400 plots of land at a relocation site in Dangkao district. The city set aside some of those plots for the Hem Cheat theater families.
The squatters say they won’t take the city’s offer to move unless the municipality or NGOs provide them with building materials and a small monetary compensation.
“We don’t know how to make a living there,” Uk Rey, 38, said. “There is no waste to pick up, no rich people to beg food from at the new site.”
The squatters know what they face at the theater.
“If I can afford to move, I would not live here—it’s very nasty, dark and has no sewage,” Ros Sarom said. “We cannot afford electricity because we need food. And the authorities will not allow us to make a hole in the wall to get sunlight.”
City officials say they have almost expended all their resources for the squatters in block Tanpa and the Hem Cheat theater.
“The municipality’s ability to help people has a limit,” Municipality Cabinet Chief Mann Chhoeun said. “Buying the land is the most the government can do.”
The city pressed the 25 NGOs the city works with on urban poverty issues to help with aid for the Hem Cheat squatters, but so far the NGOs have not responded, Mann Chhoeun said. The city would not forcibly relocate the squatters and only “suggested to them to volunteer to leave together,” though, he added.
Peter Swan, an official from UN-Habitat who has been working at the Dangkao district relocation site, said aiding the block Tanpa squatters are the first priority because many of them have been living on the sidewalk since the March 12 fire.
UN-Habitat and other NGOs are searching for funds for the theater squatters, and might use money from the Urban Poor Development Fund, a joint fund between the city and NGOs.
“The one thing we could pretty well guarantee is that there will be food distribution and food relief at the relocation site that will be maintained” until the squatters’ situations stabilize, Swan said.
Chan Thorn said her family once owned a “nice” wood house in Phnom Penh. But they lost it when the Khmer Rouge stormed through Phnom Penh in 1975 and forced residents from their homes. When she returned to Phnom Penh in 1980, another family had already taken the family home, and she was forced to go somewhere else.
Chan Thorn moved into the theater in 1980 and has since lived among the makeshift cardboard shelters in the theater’s main room. During the day, candles and cooking fires light the theater, with holes in the walls allowing a few rays of sunlight to slice through the darkness.
At night, only the glow of candles shows the way through the maze of huts. Chan Thorn doesn’t worry much about the city’s relocation plans.
For now, though, she is only concerned about the rats.
“When we walk through the theater at night, we step on the rats because there is no light to see them,” she said. “There are so many rats.”