Among the Dead After Phnom Penh Stampede

By Julia Wallace

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.

Police have vehemently denied all these claims, and the government has mounted a vigorous response to the disaster, anticipating political backlash and serious questions over its handling of the festival's logistics. It immediately set up three committees to deal with the stampede and offered $1,200 -- a small fortune here -- to each victim's family. Even Hun Sen, a strongman who has held power here for most of the past three decades, publicly apologized.

But this was small consolation to today's mourners.

At the hospital's photograph board, Phan Tun recognized her niece, who she said had gone to Diamond Island with a cousin.

"They should not have died," she said through tears. They are young. It is the first and the most terrible and massive amount of death I've ever seen before."

Behind her, a line of people filed silently into the hospital's makeshift morgue to look for their dead. Inside, two barefoot corpses lay on the floor, a bunch of bananas and a bundle of smoldering incense set out as offerings at their feet.

Eight other bodies lay in another room, a heap of empty bottles of formaldehyde on the floor. Chheang Nhil, a medic, was injecting the preservative into each corpse so they wouldn't decompose in the tropical heat, and stuffing their mouths and noses with wads of cotton.

At Calmette Hospital, one of the city's biggest, desperate family members peered through flaps in a tent set up in the courtyard that served as a morgue for the 140 corpses that had been brought there.

Sam Pov, 43, was hovering above the body of his sister-in-law, 18-year-old Sann Ra. He displayed her national ID card and a portrait of her bright, eager face, framed by a pair of turquoise earrings. The girl's mother stood to one side, weeping wildly. Mr. Pov said both of Ra's parents had attempted suicide by jumping into the river after they discovered their daughter was dead.

Next to Ra's family, Nget Sokhoeurn kept vigil over the body of his 15-year-old nephew, Lanh Tou. He had placed a scrap of Cambodian ritual fabric over the boy's face and a bowl of rice porridge at his feet.

"I am hoping my nephew's dead soul is not going to become a hungry ghost," he explained. "The fabric is to offer him magic to go to a happy and new life."

Doctors at the hospital reported many cases of shock, severe bruising and bone fractures, especially from those who had tried to jump off the bridge in panic. Calmette was clearly struggling to handle the sudden influx of wounded, and dozens were sprawled on mats in corridors, many of them too weary or shocked to speak.

At another hospital, the emergency ward was filled with 49 survivors, twice as many anxious relatives, and the sickly-sweet fumes of ponlei, a traditional herbal remedy. In the hospital's dirt courtyard,139 corpses were being identified, packed into military trucks, and sent off en masse to their home provinces. By 1 pm, five trucks had already departed and bodies were being packed into a sixth. The hospital had the air of a bus station.

"Kompong Cham province, Kompong Cham, Kompong Cham, Kompong Cham!" authorities barked into megaphones as families waiting by bodybags began to line up and heave their corpses onto the truck.

"I don't want to cry, but I can't stop," said Chea Phearun, a heavily tattooed soldier who was mopping his eyes with his shirt. "I cannot curb my tears. The tears drop because I feel so sorry to see the bodies of a nephew and two nieces lying along here. ... They should not have died. They should have been able to grow up to lead and help their country."

Outside the hospitals, the city's streets were quieter than usual. Near the Bridge of Ghosts, which was still carpeted with the scattered shoes of the dead, crowds gathered to mourn and speculate. Many stared in disbelief, standing on motorbikes to get a better look at the empty bridge.

"This bridge should be knocked down," said 47-year-old Soum Bunna. "It has bad memories for people. A terrible thing occurred there. I used to cross it all the time, but now I don't want to cross again. I don't even want to say the name anymore."

Kuch Naren contributed reporting from Phnom Penh.

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http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/11/among-the-dead-after-phnom-penh-stampede/66977/