Among the Dead After Phnom Penh Stampede

On the board outside a Cambodian military hospital that had taken some of the nearly 400 killed in a still-unexplained stampede at Phnom Penh's annual Water Festical, all but one of the faces was identified only by a number and letter. D10 had her eyes half-open. D09 wore a striped sweater; his face was locked in a grimace. D06 and D05 had curly hair and wore pink sweatshirts-they looked like sisters. D08 had a stream of black hair fanned out beneath her, as if she were underwater.

Only D01 -- tiny, with bangs and a polka-dotted shirt -had a name: Chhan Chhorlida.

Chhorlida's brother, Chhan Kimly, hovered over a railing near the photos, keeping a close watch on his sister's frozen face. "That's my younger sibling," he repeated several times. "I'm her older brother."

Nearby, Phan Tun pushed her way to the front of the crowd to look at the photo board. She saw what she had been dreading. "Dead, dead, they're all dead!" she shrieked into a cell phone, convulsed in tears.

The morning after a massive holiday stampede that has emerged as the deadliest peacetime disaster in modern Cambodian history, thousands of families embarked today on a grim march around Phnom Penh's hospitals, scrutinizing corpses and snapshots of corpses for the faces of their children.

There were many to see: the death toll stood at 379 when authorities stopped counting at 4 pm today, with at least 750 more injured. Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen, said it was the country's greatest tragedy since the Khmer Rouge, which killed millions in the 1970s.

Survivors described chaos and blinding terror at the scene of the stampede, a bridge leading to a new island development, Diamond Island. The bridge, strung with fairy lights and capped with massive fake gemstones, is formally called Diamond Bridge, but city residents have already started to refer to it as Spean Khmouch: the Bridge of Ghosts.

Diamond Island itself is home to a motley collection of attractions that can look odd to Westerners, but have come to captivate Cambodians over the past few months. In a country that claims only two playgrounds and a handful of movie theaters, the island's merry-go-rounds, ersatz Greco-Roman pergolas, ice sculptures, and electric light shows draw large crowds.

The island was packed with visitors on Monday, the last night of Cambodia's annual Water Festival, which serves the same function here as Bartholomew Fair might have in 17th-century England. Simply put: everyone comes.

This is still a nation largely made up of small-scale, far-flung rural farmers. But during the three-day festival, seemingly all of them make their way to the city. They pack themselves into convoys of makeshift trucks and trailers, often squeezing 10 or 20 to a car, doing anything and everything possible to get to the bright lights of Phnom Penh.

Many villagers spend the whole holiday camped on the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers watching the boat races, fireworks and pop concerts of the festival, which celebrates the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the rice harvest.

The population of Phnom Penh swells by around 3 million people during these three days, but city officials don't keep close tabs on this figure, and police rarely seem willing or able to control the crowds. They routinely accept bribes to let vehicles past roadblocks into the city's riverside area.

The crowds in Phnom Penh for Water Festival can be terrifying, almost beastlike. They often seem to move as a single body, flouting traffic laws, taking over entire boulevards, colonizing parks and pagodas, leaving massive piles of debris in their wake. That annual mayhem reached what may have been its inevitable conclusion on Monday night.

Survivors spoke of a mob packed so tight it was as if their limbs were glued together, of lying crushed beneath piles of bodies for more than four hours before rescue came. Although the timeline of events is still sketchy -- partly because it took emergency responders almost an hour to fight their way through the throngs to get to the scene -- many on the bridge reported feeling electric shocks just before the panic, or having seen others get shocked. Some said police had shocked them with batons; others said that shoddy wiring on the bridge's decorative lights had shocked them after police doused them with water.

Presented by

Julia Wallace is a writer living in Phnom Penh.

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