I woke up early Saturday morning after an unusually late night out. In the five hours that I was asleep, I got two text messages, both from Drew, the project manager at Aziza, the schoolhouse where Shanti and I have spent nearly every Sunday afternoon for the past year. The messages were rather urgent; today was the day.
Aziza is located in Dey Krahorm, meaning 'red earth', a community that has been under threat of eviction for the past several years (for a little more background, see my previous blog on the area). After the sweeping parliamentary election victory by the ruling Cambodian's People Party (CPP) in July 2008, concerns over evictions in Dey Krahorm mounted, but were moderated by the fact that several eviction deadlines had come and passed over the course of three years with no action. Over the last few weeks, however, things escalated, seemingly for the worse. The development company that claims title to the land, 7NG, upped its compensation offer from $15,000 to $20,000 for families willing to leave their informal settlements. Alternatively, residents were offered a home in a relocation site 16km outside of
Back to Saturday morning at 7:30am. I checked the messages I received from Drew. The first, received at 2:30am while I was asleep, informed me that the police had set up blockades around the Dey Krahorm community. The second, received just a half an hour before I woke up, said simply "They are tearing down houses by Aziza right now." I immediately snapped awake. Shit. This is it. I called Drew and asked him what I should do; he wasn't sure if I would even be able to get in, but I quickly dressed and biked over to meet Mike, a friend and supporter of Aziza, at his house near Dey Krahorm.
From Mike's house, we walked over towards Dey Krahorm, first south along the new development of shops and apartments along
While the access road was blocked, the barricades were set back such that we could walk under the maze of open-air stairways belonging to the old Soviet-style apartment and on to Dey Krahorm. We walked through, joining a few dozen people at another police barrier. Still unable to gain access, a different approach. We climbed the stairway we had just walked under and walked through the apartment building parallel to the access road. The hallways of the building, which I had only entered once before, were dank, prison-like tunnels of darkness. When we reached the square of light at the far end, we were able to descend the stairs and gain unrestricted access to Dey Krahorm.
The sound of backhoes and bulldozers reached us from the south and the pungent smell of raw sewage, freshly snapped trees, diesel fuel, and the dust of families' accumulated belongings pierced our noses. As we rounded the corner to Aziza, I could see that most of the houses in the area were still standing, though people's belongings were scattered across the ground in haphazard piles, each of which represented a family. There were bed frames and dishes, wicker cabinets and plastic chairs, small gas stoves and extension cords, fluorescent lights and photos of family weddings and even of Hun Sen, the Prime Minister, and everything else that was remotely worth saving. Around each pile of what looked like junk - but was in fact one family's existence - was a collection of desolate souls looking for answers to an obvious question.
Despite the circumstances, I was greeted warmly by the kids that I had watched grow up over the past year, the youngest of whom surely didn't understand what was happening. Briefly, I played with them and gave them hugs, trying to push away my distaste for the wanton destruction happening just a few hundred feet away. I walked from family to family bowing my head in respect, finally arriving at Aziza itself. Inside were the youngest and most vulnerable residents of the extended Aziza family living in Dey Krahorm. A half dozen kids under three years old played with makeshift toys oblivious to the unknowns their immediate future held. Two young mothers breastfed infants not more than a few months old each. A teenage girl who had been in a motorbike accident the night before and broken her collarbone lay in a corner with her face a manuscript of pain. I wondered how much of the pain was from her broken collarbone and how much of it was for her broken community.
Back outside, I surveyed the surroundings. Old and middle-aged women peered out of the back of the apartment building. Men, including a handful of military police, gathered on the roof for what was probably the most all-encompassing view of the destruction. People even watched from the southern extreme of
The backhoes advanced, much more quickly than I anticipated. I sat with one of the girls, about ten years old, that regularly attends school at Aziza. She looked at me with eyes that had seen more than any ten year-old should. She came over to hug me and started to cry on my shoulder.
As I took everything in, Drew returned from discussions with LICADHO, a human rights NGO, and Bridges Across Borders, a housing rights NGO. Having been up and at the school since 2am, he looked tired and weary, but determined. He told Mike, me, and the best English-speaking students that trucks would take people and their things to the relocation site and, at this point, going there was there best option at the moment. The students then went to each family and explained the situation.
Shortly thereafter, Drew and Mike went to attend a press conference, jointly held by the
By 11:00am, the nine acre plot of land was almost totally flattened. Demolition crews, working with axes, hammers, and mallets, worked their way through the rubble like a pack of locusts, destroying anything with the gall to remain standing. The community watched in terror, guarding their piles of belongings, the little they had left. An old woman, krama wrapped around her head, paced, sobbing and murmuring her grievances to no one in particular. It was done; there wasn't anything that people could do to recover the dwellings they had called home for up to fifteen years.Grim, Drew and Mike returned from the press conference. They met the Deputy Governor of Phnom Penh and the spokesman for the Council of Ministers (the most powerful arm of the Cambodian government), but it was unclear if they would be able or willing to help. New reports from LICADHO and Bridges Across Borders came in about the relocation site, 16km from Phnom Penh. The first trucks of evictees were dropped off with all their belongings outside the site. The houses were not complete - they were just four walls, no roof - and there was no water, food, electricity or even materials to build temporary shelters. Moreover, there are no schools or health facilities in the area, let alone access to work opportunities. Without really doing a full assessment of what it entailed, LICADHO offered to temporarily house residents in their offices. We now encouraged most of the families that we knew to take this route - there would be shelter, food, water, and legal support.
From 11:00am to 2:00pm, we scurried around, collecting scrap wood and metal for families to sell or help rebuild shelter elsewhere. A few more supporters of Aziza arrived with lunch and water for the community. I was hungry - I hadn't eaten all day - but unlike most others, I knew that I had food waiting for me at a safe and warm house later in the day. I walked around with one of the older students collecting people's phone numbers so that we would have a way to keep in touch once everyone was scattered. We stuffed trucks with people's belongings and paid off the drivers to take them to the LICADHO office as opposed to the relocation site. I played with our favorite two year-old one more time. Somehow, he got a hold of a box of matches, and knew how to light them. I took them away and he started bawling. Not wanting this to be our last memory of each other, I relented and gave them back. A moment later, he was on a truck with his older brother and mother and a handful of others. Watching that first truck leave was one of the hardest parts of the day. A number of kids I had taught and played with over the past year were leaving. I had no idea if I would see them ever again. And under these circumstances.
The enclave of people around Aziza was one of the last left in Dey Krahorm. By 2:00pm almost everyone had been shipped off to the relocation site, the LICADHO office, or found temporary shelter with friends or family. The only people that remained were some of the older students who lived in the building or the school itself and the foreigners who had connection enough with Aziza to be there. Work crews in groups of brightly colored shirts - red, green, yellow - were scattered about the site, clearing the remainders of brick and cement foundations. All of the entrances to the community were sealed off with metal sheeting and a few spot welds. As soon as the fences were complete, people worked feverishly to send scrap materials, appliances, and furniture over the top of them. In flip flops, I walked with a few others through the sludge of a year's worth of accumulated garbage and sewage to lift a bureau and a wardrobe over the fence.
A small work crew approached the playground - a small slab of concrete - in front of Aziza with a small, loud, and rickety generator. They brought green metal fencing as well. We immediately grasped their intentions. The developer claimed the right to the land literally up to the back of the Soviet-style apartment building and planned to fence off the entire backside. While this demonstrated how fabricated the land title to the area is - there is always a buffer of a few meters - it was a significant problem for Aziza and several other residents. Most apartments go all the way through to the front of the building, but others, including Aziza, have only "half" an apartment, accessible only through the rear. If the back entrance were sealed, all possible access to the school and people's homes would be eliminated. And this after 7NG assured Drew that there would be a space for students to access the school.
The 7NG workers approached with the fence and the fifteen of us that remained - half foreigners and half older Aziza students - stood in the doorway to the school, preventing the fence from being put in place. As two of the teachers for Aziza tried to negotiate with the developers, Mike called the spokesman for the Council of Ministers, who agreed to come and try to help. Drew, through one of the teachers, called the chairman of 7NG who refused to negotiate; he suggested that the fence be put in place and that we could discuss the situation the following day. Having heard more than enough bullshit spew from that man's mouth, we knew not to trust him. We also called friends in the press to get them to come and act as eyewitnesses.
One of the workers, a chubby Cambodian in US Army fatigues was particularly hostile, yelling at us and refusing to give an inch of space in front of the school. Mike brought the spokesman over and he began to negotiate with the Cambodian in the army fatigues as reporters from the Cambodian Daily appeared. Though he did not stay, the spokesman enabled true negotiation to take place and the teachers were able to get the developers to agree to a half meter buffer. However, we were not satisfied with just over eighteen inches of space, not even enough for two people to walk past each other. When the developers realized this they began, without warning, pushing the fence towards Aziza as hard as they could. The sharp metal bottom of the fence lifted in to the air as we pushed back with all our might. The physical struggle lasted about two minutes. At one point, I caught the eye of the photographer from the Cambodia Daily and I could tell that he fought to hold back his tears in what must have seemed like a futile struggle. The Cambodian students cried freely. When the fence finally came back down to the ground, it was about three meters from the entrance to Aziza and, thankfully, no one had gotten hurt. With a better bargaining position, we were able to get a one meter wide corridor along the back of the building from a house a few doors down from Aziza to a passable tunnel-like section of the building. We measured out our small victory with chalk and the situation began to calm as the fence was put into place.
As we stepped out from behind the fence, we took stock of everything that had happened. It was nearly impossible to believe that, just a handful of hours before, a community of several hundred people was sleeping peacefully in what was now a barren wasteland of rubble and sewage. Trucks were carting away both as fast as they could. The entire area was completely unrecognizable and, in some ways, this made it heard to feel anything at all.
Those of us that were left walked through a hole that had been caught in one of the metal fences to the front of where Aziza was located. We sat and over a few minutes, tried to comprehend what had happened in the course of the day. With rubbery legs, I walked with Mike back to his house, hopped on my bike and went home. I was able to get in touch with Shanti, who was in Laos and, as best I could, recap the situation.
After I scarfed down some leftovers, I took a hot shower and tried to rinse myself of the dirt as well as some of the guilt I was feeling. I had a home to come back to. I had a refrigerator from which I could withdraw food and, should it empty, I could easily get more. I had a shower with warm water which I could use at my leisure. I had so many things that the people in Dey Krahorm never had and never will or lost indefinitely today. The sense of injustice was oppressing. What were these people's homes and livelihoods taken away for? So a developer can start to build another skyscraper that has no place in Phnom Penh? And then there was Aziza and all of its beneficiaries. Thirty or forty percent of Aziza's students lived in Dey Krahorm, as opposed to the apartment buildings. Where would they go? What would their families do? Would I get to continue watching them grow and develop? Would I even get to see them again? The sickening feeling in my stomach grew as I thought about what those students and the Dey Krahorm community had lost. And Aziza was a key part of that community, offering English and computer classes and leadership training to supplement an insufficient (and expensive) public education. These activities also provided an atmosphere of hope; a bright spot in a community often blighted by the ills often associated with overwhelming urban poverty: violence drugs and prostitution.
Though some of these students will no longer be able to go to Aziza, this is not the main concern on our (or their) minds right now. We must help to get these families and their children on their feet. Ensure that they have a place to stay and food to eat. We must help them to get some compensation for the homes that are no longer. Drew and everyone else affiliated in some way with Aziza is committed to providing whatever assistance we can, even if a student is no longer able to attend classes at Aziza.
Please help out Aziza and the residents of Dey Krahorm by donating to Village Earth or through the Changing the Present website and selecting Cambodia-related projects. If you live in Cambodia and want to make a donation more directly, post a comment with your e-mail or phone number and I will put Drew in touch with you. Even if you are not able to contribute, a note of support to Drew (email@example.com) would be much appreciated.
I will continue to provide updates on the situation as I continue to process everything that happened. For more information, see these articles, blog posts, and photo sets: Ka-Set, Jinja, Phnom Penh Post as well as this video and editorial, BBC and several photo sets, including LICADHO, John Vink, these two Flickr sets, and Ka-Set's multi-media slideshow.