The former residents of Borei Keila trucked out to Tuol Sambo after losing their homes in 1999 are managing to eke out an existence. But for most ‘it’s not a happy life’
Five years ago this summer, more than 40 HIV/AIDS-affected families from Borei Keila in Phnom Penh were trucked 22 kilometres along a bumpy, dusty road to the village of Tuol Sambo, where they were left to live in 3.5-metre-by-4.5-metre corrugated metal sheds.
“We couldn’t take very much with us,” mother-of-eight Soun Davin, 40, said last week. “Just some cooking utensils, clothes, a water jug. We had to leave everything else behind – our bed, fan, photographs. I couldn’t afford to go back to Phnom Penh to get anything else.
“The new place was very far from the hospital and the city. When we arrived, there wasn’t many people, no community like there is now, and it felt very unsafe. Everyone was crying, all the families.”
When asked what it was like in those first few months, Davin, her eyes red and wet, simply shook her head.
The story of Cambodia’s “AIDS colony” – founded to make way for a Phani Mex housing development at Borei Keila - made headlines around the world. More than a 100 international AIDS and human rights organisations signed an open letter to the government condemning the “life threatening” conditions and lack of basic services like clean water, proper sanitation and electricity. The sheds got so hot in the sun that some reported that their HIV/AIDS medication crumbled.
At least 11 different NGOs came to help. The evictees got food, medicine, electricity, counseling, skills training and – nearly a year later – proper housing. Facing a barrage of negative publicity, the Phnom Penh Municipality partnered with Catholic Church charity Caritas to build 45 4m x 7m concrete houses for the HIV/AIDS affected families, a community centre and water pump. About 98 more families, who arrived later, were housed in similar but smaller homes constructed by Phani Mex.
Now, five years after the “AIDS colony” was first founded, the spotlight has shifted. Most of the NGOs are gone, leaving an artificially created community struggling to eke out an existence and facing an uncertain future.
Tuol Sambo community leader Yar Veng Hol said even though 94 people including three children in the community had contracted AIDS, none had died from the disease.
However, about a third of all the Borei Keila people had sold their homes and moved back to Phnom Penh.
“The problem is the lack of employment opportunities here,” Veng Hoi said. “Because it’s so far from the city, it’s very difficult to do business – even just collecting cans or something, like they did before.
“Some of them even commute into the city just to collect recycling or work in construction.
“They can survive here, but it’s not a happy life,” he added.
On the positive side, he said, discrimination and stigma was not an issue. While the Borei Keila residents – and not just those with HIV – had initially received an unfriendly welcome from the existing residents of the area, things had improved.
“The people living in the area used to insult us – calling us ‘slum people’,” he said. “But after a few years, we’ve come to understand each other and learned to live together.”
Veng Hol said there were a few NGOs that still regularly visited Tuol Sambo. “Licadho provides medical checkups every week and Sourire Pour Enfants (PSE) helps the children with education,” he said.
Caritas – which committed to assist the community for three years, providing some families with “income-generation opportunities” such as construction, sewing and tailoring – hasn’t been seen for months and did not respond to requests for comment.
A community centre the charity built – which was supposed to be a workshop – lies locked and empty in the centre of the village.
Friends International’s local partner Mith Samlanh, which at one point was providing 75 families with educational and social business support, is phasing out gradually and aims to close or hand over the few remaining cases next year to Pour un Sourire d’Enfant.
Licadho, which initially provided emergency food packages and household goods, also transports free HIV/AIDS medication from Phnom Penh’s Centre of Hope.
Davin – minding her basic shop, comprising a few shelves of drinks, snacks and household items – said life was manageable while the NGOs were providing support.
But now that most of them have moved on, she lives “day to day”.
“Without support from the NGOs, how will I be able to afford the nutritional food I need to keep healthy? And if I die, what will happen to my children?”
Sitting nearby, her HIV positive son, who is 14 but is the size of a far younger child, said he was sad that he had to leave Borei Keila.
“I was happy there,” he said. “There were a lot of children and more places to play.”
But not everyone regrets relocating to Tuol Sambo.
Van Sopheanry, 50, whose family was not one of those affected by HIV/AIDS, was renting a small home in Borei Keila in 2009. Sometimes, her family couldn’t afford the rent, and her landlord locked them out to sleep in the street. When the offer came up for a new house, she volunteered.
“My husband and I were old and didn’t think we would be able to get into a proper building at Borei Keila,” she said, adding that she now sells bobor (rice porridge) on the main road nearby and her husband is a motodop.
Even though the house – which the couple shares with seven children and four grandchildren – is far away from the city and has a leaky roof, she said she still feels like she made the right choice.
“At least I own my own home,” she said.
“I came with a smile and have no regrets,” she added.
Pheakdey Neary, 51, was also optimistic about her life in Tuol Sambo
A single mother with three children, the youngest of which was born with HIV only months after her husband died of AIDS in 2000, Neary also rented back in Borei Keila. She now owns her own home and earns $150 a month making clothes for Cambodian expat-owned fashion label Tonle.
“I feel very happy to work here and earn money to support my family,” she said with a smile. In the converted house they use as a workshop, her co-workers remained hunched over sewing machines as they continued to sew brightly coloured pieces of fabric.
“I never had enough money in the city, and we were always getting sick. Where we lived at Borei Keila was dirty and smelled. It’s different here. I like living in the natural environment. It’s refreshing.”
She said her only worry is finding the money to pay for her children’s education and the possibility that one day there might be no NGO to deliver her AIDS medicine.
Tonle owner Rachel Faller, who employed several women living at Borei Keila as garment makers before they were relocated to Tuol Sambo, now rents two houses at Tuol Sambo for workshops and employs eight women from the village.
She said she would like to employ more but the distance makes it challenging.
“I think if there were more businesses providing meaningful employment to the people there, that would be great for the community,” she said.
“In my opinion, NGOs can provide relief in emergency situations but none are going to create a long-term impact. I think partnering with established businesses would be the best thing for them to do.”
She said it was pointless getting people to start their own handicrafts businesses – as NGOs like Caritas had attempted – if they didn’t have access to any customers.
The underlying problem is the lack of industry or markets in the area, she added.
“I think the way things are currently going, it’s not looking that great. It’s obvious that people are leaving the community. If they can’t afford to live there, they’re going to go somewhere else.”
Ly Kimhour, 52, sitting shirtless on a bamboo bed in front of his concrete house, said he preferred living at Borei Keila. He was only a rubbish collector there, but he still managed to save enough to buy his home.
“It was easier to make money,” he said. “It’s very difficult here.”
Both he and his wife have AIDS, but she is healthier and still able to work. She stays most of the time in Phnom Penh and earns money collecting recyclables while he stays at Tuol Sambo and cares for their three children, the youngest of which also has HIV.
“My strength comes and goes day by day,” Kimhour said, appearing to be exhausted from the act of speaking. “Even with the medicine, I’m not as healthy as a normal man. Some days, I can’t move. There is no joy in our family.”
He doesn’t think much about the future, he said.
“I just hope that our children can have a better life than we have had,” he said.