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Fires: Urban renewal, Cambodian style

[photo right: The day after, November 27, 2001]

[Links to the rest of the photos are at the bottom of this page.]

In the southeastern section of Phnom Penh is a large slum area called "The Building", so named due to the massive skeleton of an unrealized ambitious construction project that dominates the skyline of the neighborhood. Surrounding this shell are several shantytowns. The residents are squatters, their homes illegal. The city wants them removed.

Earlier in 2001, one of these neighborhoods burned to the ground displacing approximately 2,700 people. No home was ever rebuilt - all the former residents were moved to the outskirts of the city in the vicinity of the airport. Five days after the fire, the area was completely cleared and grass grows where homes once stood. Although there is no direct evidence proving this fire was an act of arson, I've met few - expats, Khmers, and especially former residents of the destroyed neighborhood - who believe the fire was anything but intentional. One resident described armed men with batons pushing people out before the blaze began.

On the afternoon of November 26, 2001, an even larger section of the slum burst into flames. By sundown the city of Phnom Penh had already determined the cause of the fire - a propane gas container explosion. This is plausible, absolutely so. And as all these homes were made of wood and crammed into each other it wouldn't take much for a fire - accidental or purposeful - to spread rapidly causing massive destruction.

Few people believed the first fire was accidental and this one too, is under just as much suspicion. Located near the riverfront, this real estate is prime for development. As Phnom Penh grows and prospers, what was once a shantytown could someday be a five-star hotel or a high-rise office building. In fact, this stretch of land was already slated to be used for a new road and a plan was in place to relocate the residents some time next year. Rather conveniently, the fire began at the very end of the neighborhood - and guess which way the wind was blowing? One resident said to me, "Yesterday a big fire, next month have land for sale, next year - new building."

I missed the actual fire, but several friends of mine were witnesses to this catastrophe. They described the situation as utterly chaotic. There were about four fire trucks, about as effective as spitting on a campfire. There were panicked residents trying to save whatever they could. Tears, screaming, mass hysteria. Police, overwhelmed by the panicked crowd, resorted to firing their guns in the air in an attempt to restore some kind of order. Some residents, unable to get their motorbikes out, which is for many people their most valuable asset, took to throwing those motorbikes into the water in the swampy area behind the houses.

The following morning at 7:00 a.m. I went down to the scene of the fire to take photos. The devastation was enormous. The local news reported the number of homes destroyed as approximately 2,400. That's right, two thousand four hundred homes. For as far as I could see only the vertical charred remains of wooden supports rose above the ashes - it was so overwhelming, so widespread it looked as if this had been a forest fire. It was surreal. Hundreds of people had returned to where their homes once stood to see what they could find - anything - a ceramic bowl, the frame of a bicycle, a comb, a fork. Thousands of people lost everything - whether you are a poor slum resident with few possessions or you're someone well-off with a full-size moving van's worth of stuff, everything is everything and it hurts just as much.

With most Asians, unpleasant feelings are kept inside. The chaos my friends described seeing the previous afternoon had subsided. Stoicism was the order of the day. In the west there would still have been much crying, screaming, hugs, whatever was needed at the time. But the pain here was still visible. A boy of maybe twelve sat alone sobbing quietly at the edge of what was yesterday his home. Nearby I saw a woman in her mid 30s with a couple of children beside her. Standing on a pile of ashes, stone-faced silent, the look in her eyes and on her face was one of utter defeat. We made eye contact and with what little Khmer I speak, I asked her the obvious question, was this her house? She nodded in ascent. I'm very sorry, I told her. She nodded again, forcing a smile, "au goon" (thank you) she whispered.

Many children played in the rubble, picking through the remains for whatever useful object, definition of such entirely up to the individual, they might find and avoiding the areas still smoking from the previous day's blaze. Adults were of less humor than their children, but smiles still came my way. But an Asian smile can just as likely be a mask for what the bearer really feels inside.

Their was laughter, sure, a few times when I took a photo and someone in the group, realizing what I just did, would inform the others that some foreigner just snapped them, they'd break into laughter. That's something I like about people over here - looking for a positive even in the worst of situations. But still, this laughter was not the norm.

Thousands of people are homeless today. Up the road a few hundred meters from the scene a large crowd had gathered in front of the Bassac Theatre where city officials barked instructions through a loud speaker as to what the former residents should do, where they should go. But whatever these former residents do, it won't be building new homes on the land they once lived. Some are being temporarily housed at the theatre, but most are out on the streets. Likely, in time the city will dump them on a piece of land some fifteen or twenty kilometers away. Out of sight, out of mind.

We'll never really know what happened. But somebody knows the truth. So here I will take my cue from the Cambodians. Get on with life and not dwell on what is now finished. For if somebody was behind this mass devastation than they will certainly get their due in another life for there is no atoning for the destruction of 2,400 homes no matter how poor their residents are. And if it was an accident, then so be it. But there are more squatter communities in this area of Phnom Penh and I dare say there will probably be more fires.

And there were more. A mere thirty hours after the last flame was extinguished a second neighborhood across the river went up in flames destroying a couple of thousand more homes. This was also a squatter development inhabited mostly by Vietnamese. In one thirty-six hour period, well over ten thousand people became homeless, most losing everything they owned.

This second fire occurred at night. I did not visit the scene the following day, but a couple of westerners who did described it, expectedly, as much the same as the scene of the other fire. Except here, even the wooden support beams were destroyed. Residents were seen standing on the plot of ash that was once their home, guarding that territory, believing they'll be building a new home there. Hopefully they will maintain that optimism when they find out otherwise, are pushed to the outskirts of the city forced to make a living in a makeshift neighborhood surrounded only by a few garment factories and industrial parks.

Now what?



The Morning After 1

The Morning After 2

The Morning After 3

The Relocation Site




All text and photographs 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.