Fire on the River: Reactions from a Cambodian disaster zone

November 2009

Since I’m sure it didn’t make the BBC world news, I’ll fill everyone in on some of the current events of Pnomh Phen, Cambodia. Three days ago a massive fire from a burst gas canister raced through an impoverished community of cambodia 309ethnic Cham Muslims, incinerating 230 one room wooden homes and rendering over 1000 people homeless. Had this happened in say, Seattle, you probably would have seen it on the global news. But that’s America, and this is Cambodia, and that’s enough to make the difference.

In an offer from the head of our orphanage, we got a chance to visit the site of the fire the morning after the blaze had been extinguished.   The scene was that of gut-wrenching despair and the resiliency of the human spirit. The level of destruction was immediately apparent, in that everything that wasn’t made of metal or concrete was nothing more than steaming heaps of charcoal on the ground.

As piles of ash continued to steam amongst the rubble, the sense of mourning I had expected to find amidst the disaster zone was instead occupied by a sense of resiliency and urgency. Mere hours after the fire ripped through an entire neighborhood, neighbors were banding together to simply stand back up and rebuild their homes. At 9am the morning after, groups of men picked through the rubble and dug holes for bamboo poles. Other teams erected poles that had been brought in from the nearby countryside and laid long strips of bark across the semi-erect frames to form a roof. Tarps were erectedcambodia 312 and belongings that had managed to escape the blaze were being trucked back in inside wheelbarrows and buckets. Groups of smiling children played made-up games with the ash-black debris, their innocent hands stained with the soot of what may have been someone’s kitchen. Near a mound of steaming wood charcoal, a street vendor with his mobile cart sold fresh fruit and bananas where yesterday families had hung their laundry out to dry.  Life continued to go on as normal for the Cham villagers, because really, there is no other option.

Observing the construction taking place all around me, I couldn’t help but wonder if it would ever happen like this in the USA or other Westernized societies. At 9am the morning after a devastating fire, houses were already being constructed, and many would at least provide a roof to sleep under by that night. No FEMA. No insurance claims. No lawsuits. Just unbridled resolve to pick themselves up and start over.  Here in Cambodia, the local people know the government isn’t going to step in and offer any assistance, so they simply take matters into their own hands and handle the situation the best they possibly can. Which leads me to the question of whether government intervention and assistance in such situations is more of a crutch than a solution? I would fathom a guess that homes wouldn’t be up by the next night if people were waiting around on government aid money. In the relief vacuum created by government non-intervention, a community simply banded together before my eyes and took to solving a horrific situation.

This is not to say that thercambodia 303e will not be any relief assistance in any form, however. The Red Cross has allocated funds to provide for 100 homes to be rebuilt, though that money will be spread evenly throughout the community. While this aid is obviously beneficial, the difference is that the Cham villagers by no means expect the dollars to flow forth, opting instead to act first and accept charity later. Sometimes 1st world problems may call for 3rd world solutions, which is to simply work with what few resources are available, as opposed to expecting those that may never arrive. In a community in which each day’s activities center merely around survival, there simply isn’t the time to mourn or point fingers, because quite frankly, that doesn’t solve the problem of putting together that night’s dinner. Unless of course you’ve got some change for the fruit stand. He’s right over by where Mrs. Chan’s house used to be.

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