Ben Doherty speaks to survivors of the crush that Cambodia's PM called 'the greatest tragedy in more than 31 years'
Ben Doherty in Phnom Penh
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 23 November 2010
Police begin their investigations amid the belongings left behind by victims of the festival crush on Rainbow Bridge. Photograph: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images
On Monday night this week the streets of Phnom Penh were full, there were market stalls and music, fairground rides and partygoers crowding every available inch of space in the city.
Sopheap Meng and his older brother Sovaan were on the Rainbow Bridge, a structure spanning barely 50 metres, connecting Cambodia's capital with Koh Pich, also known as Diamond Island, at the heart of the annual Water Festival.
The three-day festival, Bon Om Touk, is the biggest party of the year here. It causes the normally sleepy city to swell by more than 2 million people, international and domestic visitors coming for the parties and the boat races, and to give thanks for the end of the rainy season.
But shortly before 10pm, the night of celebration turned disastrous. A big crowd of people packed on to the narrow Rainbow footbridge panicked, surged and created a crush.
In a few terrifying minutes the crush led to deaths of 378 or more people, and left more than 700 injured. Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen, described the occurrence as the greatest tragedy to befall the country since the blood-soaked rule of the Khmer Rouge.
Most of those who died were from the rural areas, unwilling to jump from the bridge because they could not swim; they did not know the water was only waist deep. Most were young, and most women, unable to resist the weight of humanity pushing them to the ground. They suffocated on the bridge, or drowned having fallen unconscious into the water.
Sopheap Meng had gripped his brother's hand as tightly as he could. He fought the crush pushing him to the ground.
"But there was no air, I could not breathe. I got pushed to the side of the bridge, people were falling all around, on to my arm, and I had to let go." Rescued by police from the crush which had pinned his legs, it was hours before 18-year-old Sopheap found his brother again. Sovaan's corpse was pulled from the heap of bodies on Rainbow Bridge.
What sparked the panic is the subject of countless theories. Some at the scene yesterday said it started when word swept among the tightly packed crowd that the bridge was about to collapse. One witness said he saw the bridge bouncing under the weight of the people.
Others said the panic started when the multicoloured lights strung from the suspension ropes began sparking.
There were still more rumours – of mass food poisoning starting the crush, or a gang of youths robbing the crowd. It could be that there were just too many people on the narrow concrete footbridge.
The Rainbow Bridge was built this year, and only open for the festival. It was supposed to be a one-way system, leading people from the island to the city. People trying to get on to the island were meant to take a second bridge, which was 200 metres to the south. But the Rainbow Bridge was closer to the action and, amid the excitement and the celebrations, the regulations were relaxed.
Lin was right in the middle of the bridge with his girlfriend Ni when the crush became unbearable.
"I realised I could not move," Lin told the Guardian. "I could not go back, I could not go forward. People were pushing from everywhere and there was nothing I could do. I was right in the middle, everyone around me was falling, one on top of another, they were being crushed. There were dead people all around me." His girlfriend survived too, shaken but uninjured. "We are the lucky ones today. One in 1,000 lucky. Two more minutes and I would have fallen too."
Yesterday the bridge remained littered with the evidence of the tragedy: there were thousands of shoes, shirts and hats, left behind in the terror that consumed those caught in the crush. Police and army officers pored over the items for clues.
On the banks of the Bassac river, relatives of the victims made Buddhist offerings and prayed for the lost.
At the nearby Calmette hospital a makeshift open-air morgue was laid out in the grounds. Bodies were arranged in lines on straw mats inside a large white tent.
Family members peered through open windows, searching for their loved ones. Those identified were covered with a white sheet, those unknown were left exposed so that they could be claimed. Flies buzzed constantly in the stifling heat.
Boupha Lak sat at her dead daughter's feet, gentling stroking them, waiting for the paperwork to be completed so she could take her home.
Boupha said: "She went to the festival to see her friends, but she was alone on the bridge when it happened – her friends I have seen today, they were on the other side. She was found on the bridge, crushed underneath all the other bodies. They told me she was on the bottom."
In the heat of midday, coffins lined with wallpaper began arriving in army lorries. They were given out to the family members of victims, along with transport to take their loved ones home.
One woman wailed at the pile of wooden coffins, her daughter's name scrawled in text on the lid of one. "It's not fair," she cried. "My daughter doesn't deserve this. She deserved a long life."
Cambodia is a country much too used to tragedy, its people weary of loss and of suffering. The prime minister acknowledged as much when he spoke in the middle of the night on Monday. "This is the greatest tragedy in more than 31 years after the Pol Pot regime," Hun Sen said in reference to the Khmer Rouge, whose regime killed a quarter of the Cambodian population, an estimated 1.7 million people, between 1975-79. "I ask you all to understand me and forgive me for this very bad situation."
The prime minister declared Thursday a day of mourning, and he promised compensation of 5m riel (about £780) to the families of those killed and 1m riel to those who were injured.
In the late afternoon, more than one hundred monks held a Buddhist vigil at the bridge, burning incense and offering prayers for the souls of the deceased.
By sunset, all the bodies had been cleared from the makeshift morgue at Calmette hospital. Army lorries bound for the provinces, loaded with plain brown coffins and grieving relatives, rolled out of the city all evening.-