Instead of trying to sum up the last week in brief like usual, just wanted to share two very delicate and impacting moments I was able to experience over the last few days. The first one took place earlier this week in Phnom Penh. During a late night out exploring the city, a couple girls from my group and I had met a friendly Cambodian tuk-tuk driver around our age who spoke fantastic English for a change. Enjoying his company, we invited him to join us for a drink, and he ended up giving us a ride back for free. During the ride home, our conversation began to switch from light easy topics to exchanging heavy personal stories. The driver, who I ashamedly don’t recall his name, opened up about his successful lineage of family that were viciously destroyed in the American bombings and dark Khmer Rouge times. I sat outside the hotel for what seemed like hours listening to the raw and honest horrors of his family’s past that was little over 30 years ago. He told me about how his grandfather was one of the most renowned doctors in all of Cambodia until he was killed by an American bomb that had blown up his house. The bombs had also blown up his Aunt and Uncles home, killing some of his cousins. The few educated people that were left in his family were murdered by the Khmer Rouge a few years later. His father was shot near the end of the reign just before he was born, as well as all of his paternal uncles. His mom, one of the few family survivors, still waits in Phnom Penh in hopes that one of her displaced older siblings will return there one day, although the chances are very likely that they were killed as well.
Picture this: all the garbage and sewage your family accumulates in one year, slowly collecting in one big rotting pile of crap. Fast forward that image seven years, even more decay, with an unbearable stench wafting all around twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Now, multiply that petrifying image to 6000 families, crammed tightly together in a village, shack to shack, rotting waste overflowing into homes, compiled for seven years, no removal, no cleaning, just sitting and rotting. Absolute filth, an unfathomable smell, and a perfect scenario for disease infestation, and absolutely nowhere else to go. Unfortunately, this place exists, near Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I was there to see it with my own eyes.
I am a pretty normal college student from back in the U.S.A, with a passion for development. I had read about villages having to be forcefully moved because of a variety of reasons. I had studied how distraught and ripped apart that it can leave communities. I mean, I cannot even imagine having my whole family and neighbors being moved without warning, leaving your house behind, and possibly most of your belongings, to be relocated to a place not of your choice. After this small town in Cambodia, I have a little clearer picture of this. They had lived along a lush river, in a much more open area and, for undisclosed reasons, were kicked out to an area a fraction of the size, forced to make a living in the back of an old cow pasture that was partly encompassed by a swamp.
I visited the village guided by a friend who was working on a reconstruction project there. While living in the states, I had heard about the village project and wanted to witness the progress for myself. I did not know much about the village besides it was extremely poor and had no means of leaving the desolate area it had been handed. When I arrived, I was astounded by how small of an area such a city of 6000 residents could fit into. By my estimation, it looked like no more than 30 to 40 acres with all of the shops and public service areas included. The entrance to the city was the area being reconstructed, and it was coming along beautifully. I know there had been a number of outside influences helping it regain its control since it had been moved locations seven years before, and this semi-reconstructed area looked clean and organized with rowed houses, a new market place, and even a newly developed sewage system! But, as we moved deeper into the city, where many projects had been vacated, an entire different type of nightmarish reality developed before me.
We moved past current reconstruction to the area that had been left untouched by human aid groups. The immediate loss of concrete road was the first sign, which quickly transformed from paved straight roads to uneven dirt paths to a swampy mess of sewage with only a pipe to hobble down between homes. This sewage area made up the lowest part of the town, and is where all of the waste generally flowed, to along with most of the garbage since the rains would naturally push it to this area naturally.
This vicinity was the most shocking to my system, and, by eyeballing, I guessed it made up nearly a third of the entire city area. The sight was something I could have never imagined until being there in its presence. When the first dirt path converted into these large transporting pipe ways, snaking their way in between rows of compacted shacks, I had to stop for a second to take it all in. We were literally walking on a pipe, of which purpose no one really knows, that barely surfaced the excrement that piled up on all sides. At the surface, the waste took on a rainbow of shapes and colors that quickly melded into a dark gooey heap of incomprehensible mass. Not even a meter from the walking-pipe, laid the small shanties of the hundreds of families living amongst the rubbish. The stench drifted up with a sickly sweet, yet sour stench of burnt rubber, feces, stale urine, and putrid products; it was nearly intolerable to bear and I ended up stuffing small cotton swabs into my nose that I happened to have in my pocket. We stopped to talk with the bordering homes, and the families seemed happy enough, playing cards, kids running freely up and down the pipe, some even plummeting into the mysterious goop below, making treasures out of what others had left behind, whatever that may be. The homes were raised barely a foot or two above the mess, with a common room on bottom, and the bedrooms and kitchens strategically placed on top, but highly doubt that this organization stopped much of the disease that spread quite rampantly through the area I had heard. I could not imagine why…
The shallow water hole lay not far from this living dump, where the people all bathed and drank from. I wondered to myself what the statistics of survival are in this area compared to most. My host explained to me that this was their last and biggest area of the city to tackle for proper sewage. He still had no idea how it was going to be all figured out in the end. Nobody wanted to do it, or had any idea where to even start. How can you efficiently and effectively clean this area that has been collecting rot for seven years straight in a small enclosed area where hundreds call home?
That is a question that I would very much like to see answered myself. A people that once had a flourishing community next to a lively river, now stuck in a collecting heap of decaying rubbish. After visiting this sight, I feel like it cannot be fully comprehended until you actually walk and talk with the people who live their daily lives in the disarray. It’s absolutely astounding that this actually happens, and still no solution yet solidified. The future has yet to answer these tough questions