Cambodian Red Cross charts assistance strategy for squatters displaced by fires

Published: 28 January 2002 0:00 CET

Kate Talbot in Phnom Penh

The Cambodian Red Cross held a special meeting earlier this month to decide its assistance strategy for people made homeless by last year's fires in squatter camps in Phnom Penh. Many were left with just the clothes they stood up in and had to sift through the charred remnants of their homes for scraps with which to rebuild their lives at new sites.

"Everything here is so difficult now," says 54-year-old Path Samoen. "My family has had assistance from the Cambodian Red Cross but there is so much we need. The fire took everything."

Nearly 20,000 people in Phnom Penh were left homeless after two huge fires swept through squatter communities in the capital over two days in late November. Earlier in the year two other slum fires also made hundreds of people homeless. The Phnom Penh municipality has offered people permanent residency in the designated areas of Anlong Kong and Anlong Kangnang, an hour outside Phnom Penh, as part of a long-term plan to relocate all squatters from the city.

More than 4000 families are in the same situation as Path Samoen at the largest of these - Anlong Kangnang. Left with little more than the clothes they stood up in, they were forced to forage through charred rubble looking for anything with which to rebuild their homes at the new site. The result is row after row of makeshift houses of tin, bamboo, grass and plastic. Rubbish covers the ground, latrines are neglected and there's a shortage of safe drinking water.

The Cambodian Red Cross earlier this month met to agree its long-term strategy for assisting these vulnerable people at the fire relocation sites. It was decided that the Red Cross would try to protect the area and prevent the rapid spread of disease that was such a feature of life in the squatter camps. Education in water and sanitation techniques would also be a priority.

Over the next couple of months the Red Cross will mobilize volunteers to conduct health education campaigns, and together with the municipal health authorities will distribute chloramine tablets to purify water and demonstrate their correct use. They will also recruit new Red Cross volunteers in the relocation sites and assist at the municipality's existing health post.

Since the fires in November 2001 the Cambodian Red Cross has distributed more than 1200 eight-item household kits, including mosquito nets, buckets and clothes. They plan to distribute to another 3500 beneficiary families but await funding. Thea Savuth, a government official at the relocation site, said: "We want to build a health post and a school and also have plans for water and sanitation, but money is lacking."
The most recent of the squatter camp fires left an estimated 12,000 people homeless and destroyed hundreds of frail wooden shacks on the banks of the River Bassac.

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