Part two of a five part series
Sophal was 11 years old when, in 1990, her family bought a plot of land in Dey Krahorm, built a house and moved in. In the years that followed, the village and Phnom Penh changed dramatically around her. The Paris Agreements, aimed at ending decades of internal conflict, were signed in 1991 and soon afterwards the city saw an influx of foreigners working for the UN and a myriad of development organizations. The city centre experienced rapid urbanization, as Cambodians sought to be a part of the new era of economic development.
Sophal grew up feeling optimistic about life and had dreams of becoming a professional seamstress. When she was old enough she began to run a small business as a manicurist and tailor from her home, which meant that people living around the village often dropped by. She married a young man from the village, Sokha.
By the mid-2000's, Dey Krahorm was under threat. The Municipality of Phnom Penh, in conjunction with companies, was systematically razing old housing communities around the Tonle Bassac area to make way for luxurious buildings. The families who had settled or bought land in Dey Krahorm and the surrounding villages were sitting on some of the most valuable real estate in Phnom Penh. As land prices rose exponentially, businesspeople and government officials set their sights on these "untoward" villages.
No formal land titles had been issued to the approximately 800 households in Dey Krahorm, although many had been recognized through documentation issued by local authorities over the years. Sophal and her husband eventually learned that a company called 7NG had been granted title to their house in December 2006. In 2005, 7NG had already begun its overtures to community leaders in Dey Krahorm to swap the land for houses build on cheap property at Damnak Trayoung, on the outskirts of the city. Residents were pressured to either move to a flat in Damnak Trayoung or agree to an alternative offer of US $8,000 in compensation.
Though hundreds of the 800 original families dismantled their houses and left, Sophal's family did not agree. She knew that she would have lost all the employment connected to her house, and that there would be no income. For those families like Sophal's that made the decision to reject the offer, the company threats turned into violence.
"Sometimes the company came at night," recalls Sophal. "They came at night to pull down the houses...they handcuffed people, and broke their heads...people wearing military boots kicked people. I saw this directly."
Finally a number of families were able to negotiate a price of US $20,000 to move. After deliberating with the family, Sophal's mother decided to accept the offer. "For the price of US $20,000 I was ready to sell," says Sophal. "I thought that I would use it to buy a suitable house, but it needed to be n Phnom Penh city in order to be near my husband's workplace and my niece and nephew's school." When her mother went to meet with 7NG representatives, she was told to come back after Chinese New Year. "But just before New Year," says Sophal, "they evicted us."
The forced eviction of approximately 400 families from Dey Krahorm began at 2AM on Saturday, 24 January 2009, when police blocked off the streets surrounding the villages. Hundreds of armed police and military police as well as demolition crews entered the village at 6AM as dawn broke. Bulldozers and excavators rolled in and began tearing down the houses.
In a final show of solidarity and resistance, the frightened residents joined hands around the village. But not even the presence of journalists and human rights monitors deterred the police who fired tear gas and rubber bullets. "I begged them not to destroy y house and to let me move my stuff outside," says Sophal. "But they did not agree. They said that they would not be responsible for any injuries and that I should move away. So I just picked up my child and we went. I tried to find my mother...but they pumped poisonous smoke [tear gas]. They pumped it from all directions...No one could breathe because of the smoke."
By noon, the village of Dey Krahorm no longer existed.
Sophal and her family were taken by truck to the Daak Trayoung resettlement site. Sophal has found it nearly impossible to survive. "I had to find morning glory and crabs in the rice fields...to survive day to day." They could not afford to connect to the electricity line or pay for water, so, she explains, "every day I lit an oil lamp and...went to get water from the pond to cook."
Although families were offered loans of US $1,000, "for my family," Sophal says, "we lost our jobs, [so] we didn't dare to borrow...we were afraid that we would not be able to pay it back... Others, poor and miserable, accepted it. Some people used it to connect to electricity, water...and so on."
To make matters worse, Sophal's baby daughter, Thida, experienced breathing problems after the eviction, and was eventually diagnosed with pneumonia. "No one thought she would survive...I borrowed money from my husband's hometown in order to send my ddaughter to the hospital, in order to cure my daughter. [She] recovered after about one year. But I lost everything."
In photo: Sophal and Thida amid the rubble.