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Living with ghosts | The Cambodian cemetery where the living outnumber the dead

Living with ghosts | The Cambodian cemetery where the living outnumber the dead

PHNOM PENH, Jan 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When floodwaters swept a chunk of riverbank into the Mekong just south of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, Sun Ramaly managed to save her clothes and her kitchen utensils. Her one-room shack, however, crumbled into the river.

Along with a handful of families whose meagre possessions were also washed away in 2002, Ramaly collected any scraps of timber and tin she could find and walked up the riverbank to find a place to rebuild.

"We are from the lowest economic class. We don't have land, so we don't have options," Ramaly told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Since then, Ramaly has lived in Smor San - a slum built on a cemetery that is still visited by relatives of the deceased. But with about 500 people and an estimated 200 graves, the living here far outnumber the dead.

Her home is a single-room, corrugated-iron shack that stands on stilts over a mix of plastic waste. Just across the river is Diamond Island, the jewel in Phnom Penh's fast-rising skyline.

Four decades after the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime abolished private ownership and destroyed all land records, Cambodia is in the midst of a property boom.

Over the years, the capital's slums have been emptied - sometimes by force - scattering the urban poor in larger settlements on the city's fringes, where sanitation, electricity, jobs, schools and healthcare are harder to come by.

Today, more than 25,000 families live in 277 urban poor settlements around Phnom Penh - perched over swamps and sewage canals, squeezed alongside railway lines or, in the case of Smor San, sharing space with the dead.

Superstition runs strong in Cambodia, where the national religion, Buddhism, is flecked with animism.

According to these beliefs, the dead must be cremated in order for the spirit to be released and reincarnated - otherwise it remains stuck between one life and the next.

The graves at Smor San are mostly Chinese and Vietnamese, and contain uncremated corpses. So, for Cambodian Buddhists, disgruntled spirits roam endlessly.

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