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Inside the HIV village, mutual jealousy divides the poor

Inside the HIV village, mutual jealousy divides the poor

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Sous Sovan’s wife Nget Kheng looks after one of her three children. Photograph: Erika Pineros/7Days

In the narrow gap between a row of houses and a concrete wall, a constant metallic sound echoes in the stagnant midday air over the village of Tuol Sambo. A man who strenuously slaves away at the nearby water pump creates the hollow sound. Despite his efforts, the water stream that flows into his bucket is very thin and broken.

The  well, the only source of fresh water in the village, serves 93 families, according to local residents. They were among the about 300 families that were evicted from Borei Keila, an inner-city community in Phnom Penh by the Phan Imex development firm last January.

In 2003  Phan Imex agreed to construct ten apartment buildings to house around 1700 families in exchange for villagers’ land. Until today only eight of the promised buildings have been built. In 2008 20 families affected by HIV had already been evicted from Borei Keila and relocated at Tuol Sambo. The village had become known to locals as the ‘AIDS village’. The village has gone through a division that may soon be finalised by a wall.

The company moved the evictees to remote and rural Tuol Sambo: more than 20 kilometres away from their former homes in Phnom Penh. Until July they lived in provisional huts before they could move into the bare brickwork houses the company compensated the families with.

Sous Souvan, one of the evictees, says that she was paid that for 1300 Riel per hour for women, and 1500 Riel for men, Phan Imex hired the evictees to build the houses themselves.

Since they moved in the situation has worsened rather than improved for many. The budget contained no money for sanitary systems, no electricity, no paint on the walls, and no furnishing.

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HIV-positive Ven Thy stands in front of her house. Photograph: Erika Pineros/7Days

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A wall separates the Phan Imex property and the property of the people they evicted in January 2012. Photograph: Erika Pineros/7Days

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A duck farmer, the only villager who makes an independent living. Photograph: Erika Pineros/7Days

Like all evicted families who received compensation from Phan Imex, motodop Sous Sovan, his wife Nget Kheng, and three children had to make this bare house a home.

At 1pm on an ordinary Thurday, Sous Sovan and his wife sit in front of their roughshod house. Sous, the only earner of the family, is not working.

“I think the NGOs would have helped us if the company (Phanimex) hadn’t built us the houses,” he says.

Wistfully staring across the street at the light yellow painted houses with red tiled roofs he adds:

“The other side of the village is a different world. They have everything there: running water, toilets, and good work.”

Another 80 families live on the “other side of the village,” according to Tek Sopheak, the Cambodian head of the operations in Toul Sambo of the NGO Caritas.

Since 2008, 45 evicted families from Borei Keila have been relocated here. All but three are HIV-positive, according to Sopheak. The remaining 35 come from Sama Ki village – they were not evicted.

The familes have ever since relied on NGO aid. The yellow houses with red-tiled roofs that were finished by the Caritas in 2009 feature sanitary systems and electricity.

Apart from Caritas other NGOs like Licadho and Friends International provide the community with medical care, food donations, vocational education and work.

Ven Thy, 40, and her family were evicted and relocated in Tuol Sambo in 2008.

The frail woman has delicate ankles and wrists. She sits and leans against a wall inside her house. Her lips are dry as parchment. She speaks slowly.

“People from other villages don’t come to visit us because we have HIV.” She knows that the people on the other side of the village envy her community for the infrastructure and housing that is provided by the NGOs.

In answer to that she says: “They are better off because we are ill and they are not.”

She and her husband are HIV-positive. “At the moment I feel okay but I survive from day to day,”she says. In Borei Keila they used to craft and repair furniture. Now her husband is too weak to work.

Apart from that it is unlikely that the isolated market situation in Tuol Sambo would provide enough customers for the family’s former business. Like Sous from the other side of the village Ven Thy is the only earner in a family of five.

Mith Samlanh, the Cambodian partner NGO of Friends International,provides her with work in a so-called home based production programme.

According to Mith Samlanh programme coordinator Man Phally the NGO employs members of eight different families in the programme.

Ven Thy makes purses that she sells to Mith Samlanh for about 100000 riel a week, 12000 a piece. It is enough to provide for the family, she says.

HIPhally states that beneficiaries of the home-based production programme exclusively sell the goods they make to the NGO.

One reason is that the NGO owns the raw material. Another reason is that the NGO and their partner organizations hold copyrights on the goods’ design as the international coordinator of Social Business at Friends-International Nikolai Schwarz explains.

Ven Thy says she does not know who else she could sell purses to and she doesn’t want to either. “I live under the roof of an NGO.

We owe them (the NGOs) so much because of them we didn’t lose hope.”

Asked whether or when the economic situation in Tuol Sambo will be self-sustainable, programme coordinator Phally says: “It’s very hard to say.”

On the other side of the village Sous says: “I can make 10000 to 20000 riel a day but it’s not enough to support my family.” Looking at his case it becomes obvious Tuol Sambo and the thinly settled area around offer no job infrastructure apart from the one provided by the NGOs. 

In order to work Sous has to travel to Phnom Penh. The opportunity cost of time and money for gasoline on the more than 40 kilometres to Phnom Penh and back eat up his salary.

But more than ever before Sous has to earn money. Four months ago he borrowed $1000 from a private moneylender backed with the mortgage on the house Phanimex compensated him with. The family needed to buy the essentials for their bare brick house. Wall paint, wire for electricity, a toilet, a TV. He agreed to pay back $1300 after three months.

Making five dollars a day the most - not even enough to support his family - Sous failed to pay. Now an interest rate of ten percent monthly adds up to the depth. Sous has never paid anything and considering his income he probably never will. He will lose the house and he knows that.

Leaning against the roughshod wall of the house that soon won’t be his any more he says: “There is no future for us here. I hope that one day we can go back to Borei Keila but I don’t think this will ever happen.”

He says that most people that were dropped off in Tuol Sambo in January 2012 are in a similar situation to him and his family. According to programme manager Phally most of the evictees had jobs in Borei Keila and now there was hardly any source of income.

Sous has given into resignation because he cannot help himself anymore and he does not believe that he will receive help from the NGOs that support a community of 80 families that live right across the street. He and others from the Phan Imex have approached the NGOs and asked for help but according to Sous they “…say they have limited capacity.”

Caritas manager Sopheak says that members of the Phan Imex side of the village have approached the NGO for help but they cannot help them yet.

The Caritas follows a three-year plan and for the time being the new evictees are not in the “target group”. Sopheak hopes to integrate them next year but more than that she hopes that the residents will find a solution with Phanimex.

On the NGO-supported side of the village Ven Thy is concerned about the presence of Phan Imex because they still own parts of the land on the other side of the street. “We are afraid that one day the Caritas will leave and then they will take our land again like in Borei Kolei,” she says.

The presence of the new evictees worries her too. “I don’t go into the other part of the village because I don’t like to see how they are drinking and gambling there.” She is afraid that NGOs, especially the Caritas, will cut the support if people in her part of the village start to drink and gamble, too.

“We have asked the Caritas to build a wall between the two parts.”

Sopheak confirms that members of the part of the community they support asked for a wall and also that there is a problem with drinking and gambling on the Phanimex side.

“If people drink and gamble and waste money that was given to them the community must punish these people and ask for the money back.” She explains. It is Caritas policy.

She supports the idea of the wall because it would clearly mark the property. According to Cambodian law it belongs to the people that occupy it after five years.

On the other hand Sopheak is aware of the fact that a wall could push the discrimination and reservations on both sides even further. “If we built a wall,” she says. “It shouldn’t be very high.”

On Wednesday nobody from Phan Imex could be reached for a comment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julius Thiemann at [email protected]


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