Over 300 families live in Phnom Penh's “Kilometer 6” commune, which is located alongside railway tracks that stretch from the districts of Tuol Kork to Daun Penh and Russey Keo (hence their name, the Railway Community). The families live in self-built shacks, usually consisting of a single room. The people here – some of the poorest people in the city – often run small businesses, in the form of mini-kiosks, in their community. They arrange individual products on cloths in front of their houses.
Because of the lack of space, the residents spread out over the train tracks during the day. Every time they hear the train horns, they quickly gather up their cooking utensils, chairs, sunshades and children to clear the track. Just seconds after the freight trains have passed, the railway track once again becomes the center of life.
Like many Phnom Penh families before them, the Railway Community faces eviction. According to a 2020 report by the land rights group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), over 50 communities consisting of 40,000 people have been driven out of Phnom Penh since the 1980s, usually without adequate compensation. The reason why they are being threatened with displacement is that the Phnom Penh authorities are planning to build a 12-meter-wide concrete road and drainage system along the railway line. Ownership of the land has been disputed ever since.
For a decade now, members of the community and activists have been campaigning for their right to land and adequate housing. In early August 2022, 320 families accepted offers of 4 x 15-meter plots of land in a nearby area, albeit without any monetary compensation. But at the end of 2022, none of the families had relocated because the new resettlement site was still not ready. There is neither clean water nor electricity, nor is the site connected to a proper road. The families are also calling for money to pay for the transportation of building materials, construction costs and access to land titles.
Steff Gruber’s documentation of the lives of the Railway Community, like the series Living on Water, Smor San and Boeung Trabek, is a long-term project that began in 2019.
Camera (digital): Nikon Z9 with Nikkor-Z zoom lens 24-70mm/2.8