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How to prevent such a disaster?

When I first received false information about the collapse of the ‘exit’ bridge at Diamond Island – Koh Pich in Khmer – due to a large crowd and such a small sized area where festivities were usually held, I thought that this would happen anyway. Maybe I was too skeptical about any urban development in our city, as too many bad examples in the past can tell. Yet, what confirmed my fear was that I received more and more calls from friends about the rising death toll that finally reached 347, 221 of which were women.

A few hours later, journalists and friends still kept calling to ask and to inform me about what had happened. Wire services published their news immediately after that. The deadly stampede was later reported to have killed so many people Cambodian history had never seen such an accident like at Diamond Island where many festival programs were celebrated this time. A few hours later, I received several calls from journalists abroad who demanded to know what happened.

The Deum Ampil online news, considered to be a mouthpiece of the government, came out before others without detailing the exact cause, but only saying that a certain number of people died, when people, mostly from the countryside, were walking on the suspension bridge during the last day of the Water Festival, known as the most exuberant festival in Cambodia.

It was actually the last day of one of the miraculous celebrations in Cambodia, where the capital Phnom Penh is almost taken over by people who come from the countryside. Phnom Penh belongs to them on the Water Festival days, and they can sleep along the streets. According to local media and words of witnesses, most people in the crowd were from among the poorest of the poor: garment factory workers, construction workers, slum dwellers, rice farmers, market sellers, and students, out for some good time in the Kingdom.

That same night the Cambodian prime minister came out live on TV several times, and during one of his speeches, he compared the ravages of the Khmer Rouge regime with the stampede tragedy.

A hospital official, speaking on condition of anonymity, was quoted by AFP as having said that many died of suffocation and electrocution – the latter was later denied by government officials and staff of the Koh Pich development company. Meanwhile, the causes remain unclear, but some witness in the crowd claim that electrocutions actually happened to those standing next to the fluorescent lights hanging all around the bridge.

While many died of suffocation, crushing and drowning, the Asian Human Rights Commission believes that there were multiple deaths due to electricity, which was later denied by the government officials and staff of the Koh Pich development company. Meanwhile, the causes remain unclear, but some witnesses in the crowd claimed that electrocutions actually happened to those standing next to the fluorescent lights hanging all around the bridge.

Probably a more accurate and vivid description of how it happened comes from a survivor and staff of a private company, in an email forwarded to me, mentioning that out of the blue, a group of eight or nine young men came running and shouting, frightening other people walking on the bridge. With approximately 7,000 to 8000 people on the bridge, anything could happen. Within minutes, said the man, the crowd started to move, but because there were too many people, and screams “The bridge will collapse!” could be heard everywhere, and people were crushed and suffocated to death either up on the bridge or drowned under the bridge.

Earlier, online media had reported that police fired water canons at the people so that they would move faster, which was apparently a bad start when people were just fearing for their lives. This created more panic and led people into frenzy.

Investigations have been going on, and a report done by the government is expected to be released next week. The Cambodian public has been on the run in trying to find the real cause of the panic that led to the fatal stampede. What breaks people’s heart is that most of the dead were young people between 18 to 25 years, the age of strength to build the country that rose out of war just three decades ago.

One 15-year-old victim interviewed by me at Preah Ketmealea Hospital described the situation as the worst experience he had ever had.

“I felt like I was going to die. There was not enough air. It was hot and stuffy. There was no space for people to move, and they had to push each other to gasp for air,” said a 15 year old boy who had been in the middle of the crowd, Moeurn Piseth Sathya, who survived the ordeal.

On the same note, families lost wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, which is now just another suffering phase to bear for Cambodians, after the suffering from the loss of family during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Vey Sdeung, 61 years old, from Phnom Penh, had to prepare the funeral for her daughter who was the only one that supported her when she was still alive. Now that she is gone, Vey Sdeung has to live with the past. “I’m so scared, and I don’t know what to do. She’s the only daughter I have,” she said with tears in her eyes.

The past few days felt very different to me. Local TV channels replayed footage from the stampede again and again, bringing many people to tears. People were not shy to cry and to grieve in a café or in a restaurant when they watched it. At night, many households placed bananas, lit candles and incenses in front of their houses, dedicating these to the dead, while shops, restaurants, and entertainment places did not open. It was quiet and it was as if people were recollecting themselves and acknowledging the suffering of the their fellow citizens.

Cambodia has historically suffered for many years in civil wars, and now this tragedy was added. But on the Day of Mourning – on 25 November 2010 – many people from everywhere in Phnom Penh came to pay respect to the dead at the bridge. With shared suffering comes unity among Cambodians. A student who was collecting donations for the victims spoke of a beggar who donated some of his money for the victims. In a time of tragedy like this, Cambodians everywhere seemed to come out and show their love for their fellow people, and this clearly was a moment of social unity.

In many ways, the horror found in the bridge stampede reveals a mixture of poor crowd management and planning, lax enforcement of regulations from both police and civilians, and widely-spread corruption in the country.

The government has tried to do the right thing by paying Riel 5 million [approx. US$1,200] to each victim’s family, but given the status of this bureaucratic society, probably not all people who should will be able to get it. The Prime Minister wept on the Day of Mourning, but the question remains: What will the government do to prevent still larger crowds from creating even greater calamities next year and beyond in the future? The government has already announced that next year, the Water Festival will be held again.

Read more in the Mirror.

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