Phnom Penh (Cambodia). 24/01/2009: Tools used by hired workers to destroy Dey Krohom
©John Vink/ Magnum
While, here and there in the capital of Cambodia, hundreds of families anxiously expect to be displaced by local authorities, we have met a woman whose history speaks volumes about the daily lives of poor people, who are undesirable in the city centre, subject to the tricks of officials and quarter (sangkat) chiefs, as well as the effects of the property boom. The story of Srey (an alias used to protect her and her family), who was evicted four times from the centre of Phnom Penh, is however not a typical one. She shares her cry of despair so that people like her be treated with dignity first. Scrutiny of the distressing itinerary of this family mother.
Evicted from land opposite Koh Pich island
Srey grew up in the province of Prey Veng in a family of farmers. She moved to Phnom Penh in 1988, where her husband who was in the military was assigned a post. They settled on a free plot of land near the Embassy of Russia, opposite the island of Koh Pich. There, Srey grew vegetables in her garden and earned enough to feed her family. But one day, while she accompanied her daughter to the hospital, the Thai company who had become the new owner of the land occupied by Srey and other families expelled the people living there in exchange for a compensation of 2,000 dollars.
“We knew we would have to move soon,” Srey recalls. “We had made an agreement with the company, but we did not know which day the move would happen.” When Srey came back from the hospital, her neighbours had fled with their money. She went to the company to explain her absence and claim her share, but the representative had received strict orders: he was to give money only to the families present during the eviction. Srey cried over her disappointment and misfortune. “The representative took pity on me,” she says. “He gave me all the money he had in his pockets.” Two hundred dollars. This was the first eviction for Srey, in 1990. But the surprise eviction took place without any violence. So, when discussing it, she does not even use the word “eviction”. For her, it was more of a negotiated move.
Evicted from Village 14
Not very far, East of the Russian Embassy, there was another unoccupied area, where the police chief had suggested the evicted residents to settle. There, Srey built a wooden three-storey house with a roof made of leaves. Her husband died there a year later. When she found herself alone with three children to support, she did her best to provide for their needs, in spite of the strokes of bad luck. During the political struggles of 1997, she lost the savings book proving that she had saved money with an organisation she says was founded by Mann Chhoeun, now deputy governor of Phnom Penh. She never recovered her money.
But the hardest part occurred on the day of November 27th 2001. Right in the middle of the afternoon, a fire started and destroyed in a few hours the houses of 1,775 families. Srey's interpretation mirrors that of many residents back then. They denounced the use of force to get rid of them: “The authorities of Phnom Penh burned our houses and moved us to Anlong K'Ngan, in the Russey Keo district.”
That is when fate took another ill turn for Srey. She used to own two houses in Village 14, under two different names. But when she arrived in Anlong K'Ngan, she received only one plot of land because someone had already taken the plot matching her second name. The village chief refused to recognise his mistake... The injustice and lack of solidarity sickened her. From then on, only one thing was on her mind: to escape from that place.
Evicted from Sambok Chap
She had to wait one year before selling her plot in Anlong K'Ngan, like many other villagers. She got 750 dollars for it. She turned her back on this impossible life and came back to Phnom Penh, in Sambok Chap, where she bought a small space for 120 dollars. She received a document proving a transfer of property and a savings book, issued properly. She lived there with her daughter. But on June 6th 2006, while she was visiting her sister near Boeung Kak lake, in the North of Phnom Penh, and her daughter was at work, the residents of Sambok Chap were evicted. She was not there when her house was dismantled.
The house owners of Sambok Chap were resettled in Tropeang Anchang and the renters in Andong. As for Srey, she had nowhere to go. Once more, she did not receive any plot on the relocation site that should have accommodated her. She asked Mann Chhoeun about her rights, looking him in the eye: “I have a savings book and I have the papers proving the property transfer.” “If you have a book, you can always build your house in that book.” An angry Srey assures those were his words. Still today, she has not digested the humiliating answer. She never received her plot.
Evicted from Dey Krohom
With her youngest daughter, she left to settle in Dey Krohom, at the house of her first child who is already married. They bought the house where they live, but the village chief always refused to sign the property transfer, always finding an excuse to avoid doing it, in particular on that day when Srey offered him a commission of 400 dollars to resolve the issue. That was not enough money. He gave her back 200 dollars, kept the rest and in exchange, granted her the right to consolidate the house with brick walls.
When the 7NG company started to negotiate with the families living on the site of Dey Krohom, Srey's family was recognised as living there in the same way as the other villagers, even though the house did not have any number. Srey was one of those who resisted until the end the planned eviction because, she says, “people who owned a large house did not agree with the insufficient offer of the company.”
In spite of the increasing tension on the site and her previous experiences, Srey did not believe in a new eviction. “We were in the centre of Phnom Penh. I did not think there would be an eviction. I also thought that the authorities knew our living conditions and that they would understand better our difficulties. I really believed in Hun Sen's speech, the one he gave after villagers died during a violent eviction near Sihanoukville. The Prime Minister had then asked that poor people’s lands not be taken to be given to companies. I really had trust in him. But in Dey Krohom, they used violence.”
Because the village chief never wanted to do his work, because the house did not have a number, once again, the family was denied their right to a plot in the relocation site. But she fought and finally won her claim. “I do not understand. The government receives money from other countries. Why do they not use this money to help the people from Dey Krohom and all those who have nowhere to stay? Who is going to solve the problem? I am calling on the World Bank and donor countries to end their support. Then, Hun Sen will have to take care of the poor. While his children are getting richer, the children of the poor are not getting anything, their only opportunity is to be a street vendor.”
When will this come to an end?
During the last eviction, Srey lost everything. She could not even save a pan. She feels humiliated, angry, desperate, sick and tired. So tired. She cannot sleep anymore. And she has lost hope. What can she reconstruct on these ashes? Tears are all she has left. “I do not want to be evicted ever again. Maybe I should go and live far from the city, in the countryside, on my own. I do not want to be a burden for my children or relatives who are already struggling enough to eat. I will probably be safer somewhere else than here.” Far from Phnom Penh, she says that she may forget what she calls “men's madness”.