Broken promises leave displaced homeless for Tet

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Hundreds of families in Ho Chi Minh City are celebrating the Tet (Lunar New Year) holidays in temporary housing as local authorities have broken their promises of resettlement.

As she sifts through the smelly offerings at the Ru Ri Garbage Dump, 20-year-old Be stops and whispers to her distended belly, "Sweetie, may you escape this dump!"

Be is seven months pregnant. Her fears that her soon-to-be born child would get stuck at the 20-year-old dumping ground, the biggest one in the resort town of Nha Trang, are not unfounded.

The dump, just 10 kilometers from the town's center, is home to many families who live off it.

Nguyen Thi Hien, 28, lives with her husband and two children in a tent at the dump site like many other families.

Hien was born at the garbage dump and started to collect scrap with her mother as soon she learned to walk.

Each scrap picker used to earn around VND50,000 (US$3) a day from selling their pickings to scrap dealers, but now it has dwindled down to VND30,000 at the most.

Gai Niem, who has been working at the dump site since she was 14, says people pick everything from metal scrap to wastepaper, plastic bags and cow bones.

Residents of Ru Ri dump site buy drinking water from outside at VND500 a liter and take a bath with well water at the nearby graveyard.

One of them says: "It's dirty but it's the only source we can afford. By now, we've got familiar with it anyway."

Virtually every resident says they have never celebrated a Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday.

Every Tet season, the children will sell incense sticks at the graveyard and spend the money on a bus trip to watch people in downtown Nha Trang celebrate the first day of the New Year.

"They often stay there from morning until night," says one adult. "They poor things!"

After that one day off, the elder children will return to picking scrap while the younger station themselves at the graveyard to pick up the food people leave as offerings to their relatives.

When asked what Tet presents they would want from charity workers, if they could get them, one woman responds immediately: "10 kilograms of rice for each family.

"I would be crazily happy then."

Vo Thi Ca, a local at a temporary housing area on Binh Thanh District's No Trang Long Street, said she and her family "cried tears of joy" last year when city authorities announced there would be no more temporary housing after the end of December.

"But now we know that it's still a dream we've had for years," Ca said.

The first residents were relocated to the temporary area in 1998 after their land was taken for city projects.

They were told to wait "a while" for new houses. The residents believed what they were told and simply wished for new homes when they celebrated their first Tet there.

But Tet by Tet, with the next coming in nine days, the wish has remained unfulfilled.

More than 50 families are living in dank and crumbling rooms, supported by the meager pay of for-hire labor.

Twelve-year-old Nguyen Phong Tran, whose parents abandoned him at birth, collects scraps and wood to earn several dozen dong a day for him and his grandmother, who is 70.

Tran said he doesn't need to earn more. "A house for me and my grandma is all I want."

Seven families at the district's Cu Lao Cha temporary housing area, also 11 years old, have lost the Tet spirit since hearing that authorities had not completed the procedures needed for them to relocate to their permanent homes.

Resident Le Thi Kim Chi said she no longer cared about Tet and was only looking forward to filing a complaint.

"Otherwise we'll have to live this temporary life forever," Chi said.

Nguyen Van Trong, living in a temporary housing area in District 2's An Phu Ward, said "Tet is now just a day like any other day because we're still poor all the same."

Trong said his family depends on VND40,000 (roughly US$2) he earns every day on construction sites.

"We cannot save anything for a Tet celebration."

Official Le Tan Binh, who is responsible for the area, said every Tet season, the ward's permanent residents share food with their "temporary" neighbors.

Broken promises

Nguyen Quoc Hung, chairman of Binh Thanh District People's Committee, has ordered ward authorities to take good care of displaced people in the area.

Hung promised to ask city authorities to move the residents out of temporary housing this year.

He said Binh Thanh District could offer enough accommodation for all residents in temporary housing that were eligible for resettlement.

A permanent apartment building is under construction for them at the Cu Lao Cha temporary housing area, Hung said.

The residents are still waiting.

But some 54 of the families living in the temporary area are not eligible for relocation as their previous homes had illegally â€" possibly unknowingly â€" encroached on public land.

The HCMC People's Committee has been waiting for city agencies to report on solutions to these families' dilemmas since March last year.

Deputy of the city legislature, or the People's Council, Truong Trong Nghia said, "I know it's difficult to figure out what to do but the city authorities cannot leave people in temporary houses for years on end."

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