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In Saen Sok Ghetto, No Reprieve from Poverty

The 1,900 people of Saen Sok are some of the city's poorest.

The residents of one of Phnom Penh's worst slums have been pushed out of their homes, burned out of neighborhoods, or simply fallen on hard times, deposited in a series of villages denoted by numbers.

The slum is home to the disabled, the diseased and orphans, who say they lack power, clean water and medical services and have just one school, put up by a human rights group.

An Chanthan, 58, is a disabled soldier. He was wounded by a 130-mm shell in 1991 at a camp along the Cambodian-Thai border and had his leg amputated at the knee. He fishes for a living and cannot afford to send his children to school.

After the war, he, his wife and four children lived in Phnom Penh, in Tonle Bassac district, selling sweets. But thousands of houses in the neighborhood burned in 2001, and Phnom Penh authorities moved them and other villagers to Saen Sok.

Now An Chanthan's wife lives at a pagoda in the city, and sends their 10-year-old boy to scavenge garbage for a living.

"I cannot make a living," An Chanthan told VOA Khmer recently. "I am sorry that I have no means to send my children to school. My children do not have a future. [My son] rummages through the garbage with his mother along the roads, in places that are not nice."

Saing Sim, 69, is a widow with yellow skin that suggests malnutrition. Her hut is four square meters, a roof of leaves, torn plastic sheets for walls. She cares for four grandchildren, all of them orphans.

"Right now, I am trying to make a living, a little bit at a time," she said. "One day, I scrub pots and pans, and people give me 1,000 riel; washing clothes I get 2,000 riel. In the evening, when I have nothing, I borrow money."

People of Saen Sok say that in Phnom Penh they earned enough to send their children to school, selling fruit, sweets, small clams. But they cannot make a living at Saen Sok.

San Sokha, who is in charge of the area, acknowledged that all seven villages lack food, that 40 percent of his residents need food badly, and that there only 15 percent of the residents are employed. The office of Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema declined comment.

Saen Sok is made up of seven villages, Nos. 1 to 7. The houses there are mainly small and disorderly. The only primary school is built of stones.

Srey Neang is a 12-year-old girl living with her mother, selling scrap from the garbage dump on a cart.

"I want to go to school, but my mom has no money to send me," she said. "The teacher wants 200 riel, but my mom does not have money. I eat salt. She does not have money to travel by motorcycle taxi. If someone takes me, I want to go. I don't want to be uneducated; it is very difficult."