Nov 24, 2010

Cambodian survivors tell of their festival stampede hell

November 24, 2010
Martin Petty and Prak Chan Thul

PHNOM PENH: Buddhist monks chanted as onlookers gazed silently across a bridge piled with the shoes and torn clothing left by victims of a stampede in Cambodia's capital here.

The body count stood at 375 yesterday and was expected to rise. About 755 people were injured and many people are missing.

The stampede on the Diamond Gate bridge occurred late on Monday, the last day of the yearly three-day Water Festival marking the end of the rainy season.

"Everyone is shocked that this can happen to us," said Chhun Sreypong, 45, clutching her baby and looking across Phnom Penh's river, the Tonle Sap, from which scores of bodies were dragged.

"Most of those who died were youngsters."

Survivors told of being buried beneath piles of bodies, of the living and the dead, for as long as three hours, crying for help and fighting for air, as police doused the crowd with water cannons.

"People were shouting for help and began to push," said Touch Theara, 38, who was among the thousands who flocked to Diamond Island for the festivities.

Her sister and her friend died on the bridge, which some described as a "gate to hell".

Not since the era of the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge three decades ago, during which 1.7 million people were killed in four years, has Cambodia seen such a huge loss of life.

Scores of people leapt to their deaths from the bridge, but most of the victims died trapped under hundreds of stampeding revellers.

Flags were flown at half-mast across the city, whose population of two million people had been swelled by hundreds of thousands of people who flocked from the provinces for the festival.

People sat on the steep banks of the Tonle Sap, a tributary of the Mekong River, as they listened to the chanting of hundreds of Buddhist monks who set down flowers and lit incense to bless the dead