Displaced from Borei Keila

“My name Ousa.

People here difficult.

We want organization help.

Need small clinic.

No toilet here.

Help people.”

I had only given Ousa my notebook to write down his name, but these are the words he left me with. I met him at Oudong last week, at a site where more than 200 people were shipped after being forcibly evicted from their homes in Borei Keila on January 3rd. Left with nowhere to live, they were swept far out of sight to an open dusty field more than 40 km from Cambodia’s capital and from their lives.

Ousa walked around the site with me, past families living under tarps, past children waiting under the hot sun to pump water, past women so old and fragile-looking it made me wonder what I’d do if it were my own grandmother lying on a wooden board in the dirt.

When I arrived at the camp, the former Borei Keila residents had already been living there for 5 days – ever since their homes were bulldozed to make way for development.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 2003, a construction company called Phanimex entered into a land sharing agreement for Borei Keila. Phanimex would receive part of the land for its project, and use the rest to build 10 apartment buildings to house the residents it would displace. At the time, it was seen as an ideal model for onsite upgrading, but in 2010, the company halted construction after 8 buildings. At least 300 families were left living onsite, meaning they were still in the way of Phanimex’s ongoing development project. The solution? Demolish and displace.

It’s the same story throughout Phnom Penh and throughout the country – homes, rivers, lakes and livelihoods being lost to concrete and progress.

Above and beyond the eyesore of the development driven destruction (and reconstruction – uninspired highrise monstrosities are devastating the Phnom Penh skyline), it is the way in which the government, police and company officials are handling the situation that is shocking. In the case of the demolition on January 3, more than 100 security officials used tear gas and rubber bullets to finish the job. Amnesty International reported more than 64 people injured, and at least 8 arrested and detained. On January 11th, when former residents gathered to protest the act, 24 women and 6 children were arrested and shipped to Prey Speu Social Affairs Center in Phnom Penh where NGOs are not allowed inside.

In the face of such violent retribution, it is understandable that so many of the affected are unwilling to speak out about what is happening here.

After visiting the displacement site at Oudong, I spoke with Sia Phearum. He is the Director of the Housing Rights Task Force, a network of Cambodian and international NGOs working on the issue of forced evictions in Cambodia. When I arrived at his office, displaced members of the Borei Keila community were huddled on the floor of a room where they were receiving legal advice on how to file a complaint to the local court.

“All the Cambodian people, civil society organizations, and international community know that the Cambodian courts are useless, but we have to try,” Phearum said. “Otherwise they just let it go … we want to improve justice, to improve the court system here.”

I asked Phearum why there seemed to be so little assistance for the displaced residents at the camp at Oudong – why they had no toilets, no mosquito nets, no help. Where were all the NGOs? Phearum said that providing assistance to the evicted was analogous to providing assistance to the evictors.

“The government says, don’t worry, when you move to the relocation site, there are many NGOs waiting to help you, to give you rice, to give you shelter. They use this strategy to evict people. So we discussed and decided, not now.”

Instead, the assistance is being focused toward those who are struggling to demand justice. On top of filing legal complaints locally, the former residents have submitted petitions to the US, French, and British embassies in hope of gaining international support.

“The international community … they need to pressure, to give an urgent call for a meeting to solve this problem,” Phearum said.

Until then, forcibly evicted residents like Ousa remain in limbo, with little help from the government or company who put them there or even the NGOs who want to get them out.

More photos from the camp are below:

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