Tag Archives: evictions

Farewell, Cambodia

Children play in the alleyways that lead into Borei Keila. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

Children play in the alleyways that lead into Borei Keila. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

When I got on the China Eastern airlines flight that would take me out of Cambodia after living and working in the Kingdom for nearly three years, my emotions were predictably volatile. Cambodia had fostered me when I had been lacking direction and adrift in the beginnings of a new career, and as time progressed and I started traveling more and more on assignments, had given me a safe harbour to return to between trips. Cambodia allowed me to call it home even though I had little to offer in exchange.

I met hundreds of people – both Khmers and foreigners alike – who had welcomed, taught, and inspired me at different times and in different ways. From a portfolio review on my third week in the country by the prolific Magnum photographer and long-time Cambodia hand John Vink to my last assignment photographing anti-logging activist Ouch Leng for The New York Times almost three years later, Cambodia helped me to develop as a photographer faster than I ever thought possible.

A street scene in Borei Keila in the evening as adults begin to return from work. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A street scene in Borei Keila in the evening as adults begin to return from work.

It was in Cambodia that I learned, through Ruom Collective, that working in a team can often result stronger work than any one individual, no matter how dedicated, could accomplish. It was also there that I met photographer Gareth Bright, who would become my chief partner in crime for nearly two years of exploring the Mekong river and who taught me more about the style and art of photography than any formal education could have. Without a doubt I left Cambodia in better form than when I’d arrived.

But what about the Cambodians themselves? Populated by some of the kindest and most peaceful people I’ve ever encountered after nearly a decade of international travel, had Cambodia become a better place for its own people to live?

Admittedly this is a much more complex question than I am temporally and intellectually capable of answering (for one of the best overviews of modern Cambodia, try Hun Sen’s Cambodia by Sebastian Strangio), but I can draw conclusions based on my time interacting with Cambodians across all sectors of society. And unfortunately, what I saw was not, for the most part, positive.

A group of women gamble to pass the time in Borei Keila. With few employment opportunities, many residents of the community have little to do during the day, leading to high instances of gambling. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A group of women gamble to pass the time in Borei Keila. With few employment opportunities, many residents of the community have little to do during the day, leading to high instances of gambling.

In his farewell address to Southeast Asia after a decade of reporting from the region, New York Times journalist Thomas Fuller said “I came to see Southeast Asia as a land of great people and bad governments, of remarkable graciousness but distressing levels of impunity.” This sentiment matches perfectly with my own experiences in Cambodia, and it makes me fear for the future of the country and its people.

Despite a protracted period of widespread protests and sporadic-yet-savage violence in 2014, the incumbent Cambodian People’s Party maintained its grip on power and steadily continued its attack on any organization or person who threatened its authority. The gap between rich and poor widened to ever more ludicrous distances and corruption spread deeper throughout the nation’s governmental and bureaucratic institutions. Public servants with tiny salaries bought $15 million houses in Phnom Penh while working class families, both in the cities and countryside, were evicted from their homes to make way for luxury condominiums and hydropower dams.

The community of Borei Keila is a microcosm of a trend that has been happening throughout Cambodia since before I arrived, and is likely to continue long after I have left. The images that appear throughout this article were all taken in Borei Keila over a period of several months, and were the last serious subject matter I documented for any length of time before leaving the country. The process of making these photographs, therefore, greatly influenced my final impressions of a country I called home for three years.

A couple watch over their three grandchildren. The children were left in their care when the children's mother developed a drug addiction and left Phnom Penh. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A couple watch over their three grandchildren. The children were left in their care when the children’s mother developed a drug addiction and left Phnom Penh.

In 2003, the property development conglomerate Phanimex was awarded development rights to the area and promptly evicted the hundreds of families who lived there. While some were provided with new housing, many hundreds more were offered no compensation and were forced to remain in the site, living in squalid slums without basic infrastructure, such as plumbing. Waste removal services were unreliable, and over time a two meter tall mound of festering garbage rose behind the squatter shacks, bringing thick swarms of flies.

More than 10 years later in January of 2016, the issue was supposedly resolved and a formal ceremony was held in Borei Keila, replete with representatives from City Hall. Yet the final “resolution” (either a new apartment, a small plot of land in the countryside, or a cash payment for remaining Borei Keila residents), beyond being offered more than a decade too late, still neglected to offer anything 35 families. What will happen to these people I have no idea. Based on the past, it seems unlikely that either the government or Phanimex does either.

One is left with the distinct impression that no one in a position of power cares what happens.

A man tends to his flock of chickens which he keeps inside an abandoned apartment unit in Borei Keila. The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A man tends to his flock of chickens which he keeps inside an abandoned apartment unit in Borei Keila.

In the climate of mega-tycoons and oligarchs that has taken nearly complete control of the power mechanisms of Cambodia, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will be held accountable for the consequences of such neglect. These are the “distressing levels of impunity” that Fuller refers to, and they have come to define both the Kingdom as well as much of the wider region.

As I leave Cambodia for Latin America I am acutely aware of how much I benefitted from my time in the country, both personally and professionally, which in turn makes me conscious of how few of the same benefits are available to the average Cambodian.

There are, it should be said, noteworthy examples of an emerging young middle class who are thriving despite the challenges they face. My good friend and colleague Kimlong Meng, for example, who has built himself a thriving local media empire on the back of his own hard work and creativity. A team of five under-30 independent Khmer entrepreneurs founded Brown, a chain of modern cafes that have come to dominate Phnom Penh’s coffee culture. There are others.

A family lays on the floor of their home as they check their cell phones.The community of Borei Keila in Phnom Penh was once home to hundreds of families before land developer Phanimex bought the property rights to the area and forcefully evicted the residents who refused to accept their compensation package. Those who remained were forced to squat in the remains of the buildings, living in slum-like conditions and without access to plumbing or public electiricity.

A family lays on the floor of their home as they check their cell phones.

Yet as I sat on the tarmac waiting for my flight to take me out of Cambodia, I couldn’t shake the feeling that for most Cambodians things were going to get harder. It brings no pleasure to project negativity onto a people and culture that is so deserving of prosperity, and I sincerely wish the best for the country that treated me with such incredible kindness. But until some significant changes take place at the highest levels, I can’t help but fear that more Borei Keilas will be created by the decisions of those with impunity.

Until the majority of Cambodians can thrive in their own country as I was able to, it will be hard to remember my time in the Kingdom without a tinge of sadness.

Farewell for now Cambodia, and good luck.

For more images of Borei Keila, have a look at my personal edit of 20 pictures, or this even longer archival edit of nearly 30 pictures

Posted in Black and White, Blog, Cambodia, Poverty Also tagged , , , , , |

From the Archive: Borei Keila

A boy walks down from his family apartment in the Borei Keila neighbourhood of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

A boy walks down from his family apartment in the Borei Keila neighbourhood of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The families who lived in these apartment building were forcefully evicted from their homes when the government sold the property to private land developers.

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Evicted: Veng Ny’s Family

Veng Ny, 59, and his wife Mum Sokun, 48, sit with their three children in their home in the Toul Some Bo relocation site.

When roughly 500 police and security forces arrived in Borei Keila to support the forced evictions, Veng Ny was living in a small shack with his wife and three children. He watched as a bulldozer levelled the house with all of his family’s possessions inside.

Though reluctant to leave Phnom Penh, when the Phan Imex development company promised him that he would receive a new house in one of their designated relocation sites, Veng Ny thought he was doing what was best for his family by accepting the offer. He was promised that their new house, in the Toul Som Bo relocation site, would be provided with low cost electricity and water services, something he hadn’t had before. But after four months of living in Toul Som Bo, the power and water were disconnected without warning, and they never turned back on.

As a result Veng Ny and his neighbours have been forced to pay a private firm to reconnect the services at an exorbitant price. He now finds himself in a hopeless situation with no reliable source of income. Since Toul Som Bo is located outside the city limits, he must walk three hours into Phnom Penh where he occasionally finds odd jobs, but the money is not enough. Everything that he earns goes to food. His children are unable to go to school because he can’t pay the bribes demanded by most teachers in Cambodia, though the total cost for all three children’s education is less than $100/year.

The full photo story can be seen here.

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Since the Cambodian government does next to nothing to help those affected by the Borei Keila evictions, NGOs are one of the only sources of hope for these people. When asked which organization helps them the most, the vast majority named Licadho as being the most involved, giving them food and medicines. Please consider donating to help the evicted. 

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Evicted: Borei Keila and Land Grabbing in Cambodia

Land grabbing, the process of private corporations buying up Cambodia’s land from a notoriously corrupt government, is quickly becoming one of the country’s most controversial issues. Since the 1990’s roughly two million hectares of the nation’s public lands have been sold to private developers to the point where it is estimated that 1% of the population owns roughly 30% of the land. The government justifies this in different ways, most commonly saying that this is a necessary step for the development of the economically poor country, though the widening disparity of wealth indicates that this development is only benefiting Cambodia’s elite.

Borei Keila, a once heavily populated residential neighbourhood in the heart of Phnom Penh, is a microcosm of this issue and demonstrates the devastating impact Cambodia’s land grabbing is having on its citizens. When the Phan Imex company bought the development rights to the area, the hundreds of families living in Borei Keila were evicted from their homes without warning. Residents estimate that around 500 police and military personnel arrived on January 3rd, 2012, to enforce the eviction.

Despite legally owning the land they lived on, they were powerless to stop the evictions and were left with very few choices. Some residents chose to remain in Borei Keila, living in the semi-destroyed shell of their apartment buildings despite the fact that necessary services like power and running water have been shut off. Others accepted meager compensation packages from Phan Imex and were moved to one of several relocation zones outside the city limits, places devoid of infrastructure and opportunity.

These images were shot over a one month period in Borei Keila, and the Phnom Bat and Toul Som Bo relocations sites outside Phnom Penh.

One of the remaining Borei Keila buildings is reflected in a pool of water resting in the rubble of an already demolished building. The apartments were designed by Vann Molivan, one of Cambodia's most famous architects, and many feel that they should be preserved.

One of the remaining Borei Keila buildings is reflected in a pool of water resting in the rubble of an already demolished building. The apartments were designed by Vann Molivan, one of Cambodia’s most famous architects, and many feel that they should be preserved.

A 15-year-old boy holds a photo of himself from when he was beaten by police during the forced evictions on January 3rd, 2012. When he attempted to retrive some items from his familys house before it was demolished, an officer crcked his skull with the putt of a pistol. Residents estimate that more than 500 security personnel took part in the evictions.

A 15-year-old boy holds a photo of himself from when he was beaten by police during the forced evictions on January 3rd, 2012. When he attempted to retrive some items from his familys house before it was demolished, an officer crcked his skull with the putt of a pistol. Residents estimate that more than 500 security personnel took part in the evictions.

A man walks up the outer stairs of one of the still-standing  Borei Keila buildings past a spray painted message that reads "no pissing". The metal hand railings were removed from the stairs and hallways by the development company, Phan Imex, in an attempt to make the building less habitable and therfore encourage people to accept the company deal and leave.

A man walks up the outer stairs of one of the still-standing Borei Keila buildings past a spray painted message that reads “no pissing”. The metal hand railings were removed from the stairs and hallways by the development company, Phan Imex, in an attempt to make the building less habitable  – and therfore encourage people to accept the company deal and leave.

Srey Pov, 57, sits in front of her neighbour of 15 years vacated unit. Srey Pov has lived in Borei Keila for 34 years and refuses to leave with her 12 family members. The "OK" painted on the wall indicates that the occupant has either accepted Phan Imex's compensation package or left of their own volition.

Srey Pov, 57, sits in front of her neighbour of 15 years vacated unit. Srey Pov has lived in Borei Keila for 34 years and refuses to leave with her 12 family members. The “OK” painted on the wall indicates that the occupant has either accepted Phan Imex’s compensation package or left of their own volition.

A vacted unit in one in Borei Keila with a view of one of the other remaining inhabited buildings. Once a resident has accepted Phan Imex's compensation package, the cmopany destroys the interior of the unit to make them uninhabitable.

A vacted unit in one in Borei Keila with a view of one of the other remaining inhabited buildings. Once a resident has accepted Phan Imex’s compensation package, the cmopany destroys the interior of the unit to make them uninhabitable.

Chei Borei, 22, sits in his flooded ground level unit in Borei Keila. He shares the space with his two brothers and refuses to leave until he receives adequate compensation from Phan Imex.

Chei Borei, 22, sits in his flooded ground level unit in Borei Keila. He shares the space with his two brothers and refuses to leave until he receives adequate compensation from Phan Imex.

Dy Senghai, 45, stands with her daughter -Ouk Srey Pov, 10, in their unit on the third floor of Borei Keila. They have been living in the house since 1985 and the compensation they have been offered is not enough to relocate their family of 6.

Dy Senghai, 45, stands with her daughter -Ouk Srey Pov, 10, in their unit on the third floor of Borei Keila. They have been living in the house since 1985 and the compensation they have been offered is not enough to relocate their family of 6.

Chhem Chetca, 52, eats lunch outside his Borei Keila home. A soldier in the liberation army, he lost his leg to a landmine and is unable to do most physical jobs.

Chhem Chetca, 52, eats lunch outside his Borei Keila home. A soldier in the liberation army, he lost his leg to a landmine and is unable to do most physical jobs.

Khan Rany, 49, has been living in Borei Keila since 1983. Since her husband is a police officer she has more bargaining power than most, but even so the compensation being offered by Phan Imex is not enough and she refuses to leave.

Khan Rany, 49, has been living in Borei Keila since 1983. Since her husband is a police officer she has more bargaining power than most, but even so the compensation being offered by Phan Imex is not enough and she refuses to leave.

Wall graffitti in an abandoned Borei Keila unit.

Wall graffitti in an abandoned Borei Keila unit.

Homeless scavengers search for recyclables among the abandoned Borei Keila units.

Homeless scavengers search for recyclables among the abandoned Borei Keila units.

A woman prepares dinner as her daughter sleeps in their Borei Keila unit. They have so far been offerered no compensation by Phan Imex and they have no other place to go.

A woman prepares dinner as her daughter sleeps in their Borei Keila unit. They have so far been offerered no compensation by Phan Imex and they have no other place to go.

Children play in Borei Keila.

Children play in Borei Keila.

A man stumbles as he walks through the garbage mounds that have built up outside the Borei Keila buildings. Residents of the neighbouring buildings throw their waste out of their windows and since there is no free disposal service provided by the government or the Phan Imex company, the area has turned into an unsanitary dump.

A man stumbles as he walks through the garbage mounds that have built up outside the Borei Keila buildings. Residents of the neighbouring buildings throw their waste out of their windows and since there is no free disposal service provided by the government or the Phan Imex company, the area has turned into an unsanitary dump.

Phean Samet, 22, is a homeless youth who sleeps under stairwells and with friends around Borei Keila. He is heavily scarred from falling off the top level of the apartment block when the Phan Imex company removed the railings.

Phean Samet, 22, is a homeless youth who sleeps under stairwells and with friends around Borei Keila. He is heavily scarred from falling off the top level of the apartment block when the Phan Imex company removed the railings.

A couple sleeps in the apartment building built by the Phan Imex company as a relocation site for Borei Keila residents. Phan Imex pledged to build 12 buildings, yet they have only built 8 and then claimed to be bankrupt. Large sections of the new buildings are fenced off and are being saved for people with government connections rather than being given to evicted residents as they promised.

A couple sleeps in the apartment building built by the Phan Imex company as a relocation site for Borei Keila residents. Phan Imex pledged to build 12 buildings, yet they have only built 8 and then claimed to be bankrupt. Large sections of the new buildings are fenced off and are being saved for people with government connections rather than being given to evicted residents as they promised.

An elderly woman eats from an empty bowl in the corridor of one the buildings Phan Imex built for the evicted residents. Phan Imex claimed that they went bankrupt and did not in fact build the number of new houses they promised, meaning many Borei Keila residents did not receive a unit. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

An elderly woman eats from an empty bowl in the corridor of one the buildings Phan Imex built for the evicted residents. Phan Imex claimed that they went bankrupt and did not in fact build the number of new houses they promised, meaning many Borei Keila residents did not receive a unit. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

A young boy wades into a polluted lake in the Toul Som Bo reolcation site.

A young boy wades into a polluted lake in the Toul Som Bo reolcation site.

Hov Kokhan, 63, lost his legs to a mortar accident as a soldier in the liberation army that fought the Khmer Rouge. He had been living in Borei Keila since 1979 when his house was leveled with all his posessions inside on January 3rd, 2012. He was relocated to the Toul Som Bo site by the Phanimex company and because his military pension is only $50 a month he is unable to move back to Phnom Penh.

Hov Kokhan, 63, lost his legs to a mortar accident as a soldier in the liberation army that fought the Khmer Rouge. He had been living in Borei Keila since 1979 when his house was leveled with all his posessions inside on January 3rd, 2012. He was relocated to the Toul Som Bo site by the Phanimex company and because his military pension is only $50 a month he is unable to move back to Phnom Penh.

Bun Lon, 81, sits in his house in the Phnom Bat relocation site two hours outside Phnom Penh. Partially deaf and blind, Phani Imex gave him a house, but no cash compensation so his children have to give him the money needed to eat everyday.

Bun Lon, 81, sits in his house in the Phnom Bat relocation site two hours outside Phnom Penh. Partially deaf and blind, Phani Imex gave him a house, but no cash compensation so his children have to give him the money needed to eat everyday.

A group of men play games during the day at the Phnom Bat relocation site. Located two hours outside Phnom Penh, there are virtually no job opportunities at the relocation site meaning residents have very little to do.

A group of men play games during the day at the Phnom Bat relocation site. Located two hours outside Phnom Penh, there are virtually no job opportunities at the relocation site meaning residents have very little to do.

An HIV positive baby in the Phnom Bat relocation site. There is no medical treatment provided by the government or the Phan Imex company, and residents must rely on NGOs for help.

An HIV positive baby in the Phnom Bat relocation site. There is no medical treatment provided by the government or the Phan Imex company, and residents must rely on NGOs for help.

A group of boys search for small fish and shrimp in a pond in the Toul Som Bo relocation site. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

A group of boys search for small fish and shrimp in a pond in the Toul Som Bo relocation site. Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

A boy walks along the exterior wall of the Toul Som Bo relocation site.

A boy walks along the exterior wall of the Toul Som Bo relocation site.

 

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Evicted: Noum Nam

Noum Nam, 72, stands with his wife in front of their home in the Toul Som Bo relocation area.

Its hard not to look at the huge scar that runs down the right side of the 72-year-old’s body. The jagged line, which runs from his shoulder blade to his navel, was caused by an AK-47 round which hit him in the back and bounced off his rib cage several times before exiting his stomach, essentially tearing apart the entire right side of his body.

When asked he says he was not angry about being wounded. He was a soldier in the liberation army fighting to dispel the Khmer Rouge, and he felt like he was doing something good for his country. He was proud to be fighting to free his people and soldiering is a dangerous job.

But now, decades after the war was won, Noum Nam feels has been forgotten and exploited by the same government that he risked his life for. Evicted from his home in Borei Keila, he and his wife were moved to a barren patch of rural land that is the Toul Som Bo relocation site. He receives no military pension and the small house that they were given was built by an NGO, not the government or the development company, Phan Imex. Too old to work and left in a place devoid of opportunity, Noum Nam is once of many whose life has been derailed.

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Since the Cambodian government does next to nothing to help those affected by the Borei Keila evictions, NGOs are one of the only sources of hope for these people. When asked which organization helps them the most, the vast majority named Licadho as being the most involved, giving them food and medicines. Please consider donating to help the evicted. 

Posted in Blog, Cambodia Also tagged , , , , , , |

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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