Evicted: Kem Oeng

I’ve spent the last three weeks in Phnom Penh trying to document the complex issue of land grabbing. I’ll be posting a lengthy and more comprehensive article about land grabbing in the coming weeks, but the basics are simple to grasp – the Cambodian government is selling the country to the highest bidder. Private development firms select an area they want and the government leases it to them for 99 years, regardless of the fact that there may or may not be people living on said land.

Since local Phnom Penh photographers like John Vink and Nicholas Axelrod have both followed this issue for years, and have done extensive photo reportages that I could not hope to match in only three weeks of shooting, I decided to narrow the focus of this story. Borei Keila is just one of many communities that have suffered because of the land grabbing, and its a microcosm of the larger issue.

While I work on the final edit from over 4000 frames I’ve decided to start posting some portraits of the people I met in Borei Keila and telling their stories in a little more detail than is possible in a two sentence photo caption.

Kem Oeng (72) sits in her basement unit which she has lived in since 1983. The ceiling is barely 6 feet high and the room floods during heavy rains.

Kem Oeng is 72 years old and has arms so thin I could have encircled them between my thumb and middle finger.  She has been living in a basement unit of one of the old Borei Keila apartment buildings for almost 30 years. On my first visit to the community she stayed inside her house, peering out at me suspiciously from the dark doorway, but once she saw her neighbours sharing their stories with me she seemed eager to talk.

The first thing I notice about her apartment is that I can’t stand up. The ceiling is less than 6 feet high and there is a distinct smell of mouldy concrete from when the unit periodically floods. During the rainy season Kem Oeng tells me that the water can sometimes get over a foot high in her house.

But though humble, this is her home and she does not want to leave. It is only a matter of time before the building is demolished however, and when I asked her what she would do when this eventually happens she shakes her head sadly and says only “I can’t think about that.”


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