The Chinese New Year kicked off in tragic fashion for scores of families in the Tuol Roka village of southern Phnom Penh, where a massive blaze destroyed 97 homes on Saturday night.
“We weren’t able to save anything, just the clothes we are wearing. Everything else was destroyed,” said resident Ley Yang, 27, the morning after the blaze.
Yang stood under a tarp atop the ruins of his charred home, where he lived with 18 family members. Like most residents of the Meanchey district community, Yang is ethnically Vietnamese.
Around them lay the utter destruction from an inferno that residents said began after midnight and spread quickly thanks to strong winds. It took nearly two hours for fire-fighters, who residents said arrived half an hour after the fire started, to extinguish the flames.
“We slept on the sidewalk after the fire ended,” added Yang’s aunt, Ley Vee.
Tuol Roka village chief Hor Yeing said yesterday that, miraculously, no one was injured, “but right now about a thousand people are homeless”.
Later in the day, municipal fire chief Prum Yorn said that after having interviewed residents, he believed the fire was caused by candles and incense sticks, both burned in large quantities during Chinese New Year celebrations.
Evidence his team collected, he added, would be provided to villagers should they wish to file a request for compensation to the courts.
However, resident Chov Thibor, 50, who also lost everything in the fire said that even though there were suspicions as to where the fire started, “we cannot file a complaint against them, because their house and property were also damaged”.
Late into the morning after the fire, residents continued to lug ragged, leaky hoses through the disaster zone, dousing still-smouldering rubble with water pumped from the nearby Tonle Bassac river. A group of men and a filthy dog rested in the shade underneath a precariously sagging, burned-out building.
Resident Ou Phou, 25, a carpenter, inspected the ruins of his home, standing among warped pans, blackened corrugated roofing panels and the roasted carcass of a large gecko.
“My wife and I carried my daughters away from our home without taking anything with us when the fire neared,” he said, adding that he, like many in Tuol Roka village, planned on sleeping atop the ruins of his home until things were rebuilt or they were made to leave by authorities.
While Phou said that residents were celebrating the arrival of Chinese New Year the night of the blaze, there were no fireworks or firecrackers involved in the revelry.
“We all just played cards and cooked food,” he said. City Hall regularly bans pyrotechnics during the popular holiday to prevent accidental fires.
Paul Hurford, managing director of the safety equipment supplier and consultancy Fire Safe, said that fires were unfortunately common during Chinese New Year, and that rather than fireworks, “the burning of incense sticks and spirit money” mixed with an alcohol-fuelled “party mood” were usually to blame.
Near Phou’s home stood the remains of resident Chov Vaing Khong’s neighbourhood grocery store, where the store owner also lived with his wife and three children. An estimated $1,000 worth of merchandise, including 30 cases of beer recently stocked for Chinese New Year celebrations, were now ruined, he said.
“I lost everything,” said the 30-year-old Khong. The fire’s destruction went all the way down to the river.
Lim Somang, 75, whose now-wrecked house sat near the Tonle Bassac, said he had lived in the village since 1982, and expressed concern that authorities would try to relocate villagers following the disaster.
“Several years ago, local authorities told us they wanted to move us to another place to make a park here, but they never gave any formal documents to us,” he said.