Having come to Phnom Penh to pursue higher education from my home in the province, it is rare that I have a few days off to visit my family. So, rather than joining the millions of people who came to Phnom Penh, I made the opposite trip and went home for the festival weekend.
I was sound asleep in my parents’ house, enjoying the comforts of familiar places, when my parents woke me up. I was rather annoyed, seeing that it was 2am, but once I understood what they were telling me, questions began to come to my mind, which was having an impossible time accepting that hundreds of people have actually died on the Koh Pich bridge.
Most of the questions involved the status of my friends still in the city and I frantically dialed numbers and sent out messages to find out if people were okay. Some of my friends had a similar reaction to mine upon being woken up – annoyed – but it was worth it to me to hear their voices.
I left the province at 7am, with few of my initial questions answered. As soon as I finished my lunch upon my return to the city, I hurriedly put my camera, recorder, notebook and a bottle of water into my backpack and rushed to the Phnom Penh Post office. I was asked by my editor to help another reporter, who was from America, to shoot a documentary about the event. After being so far away from the event earlier in the day, I was anxious to find out what really happened in my nation.
The Cambodian -Russian Friendship Hospital was teeming with crowds of victims’ relatives as we arrived. I immediately became overwhelmed by sadness, but this was the truth I wanted to see. For those involved in the stampede, desperation was the only emotion there was in the days after the stampede. We spent almost an hour walking around the hospital and nothing like tiredness even crossed my mind. I was too filled with sympathy and pity to consider anything else.
There were two big boards with victims’ photos stuck on either side. Some people burst into tears when they saw photos of their relatives lying dead. I couldn’t imagine. My friends and family were okay but I was still barely able to look at the rows of photos.
I talked with a girl who was among the many family members roaming the halls and tending to their kin. I talked to a girl who said her aunt was still alive in a nearby room, but was unable to move any part of her body. She said a few more words, but then stopped. As her eyes filled with tears, I couldn’t bear to ask any more questions or push her to talk more. My heart truly ached for her and all the others in her situation.
The fact that I was carrying a camera bag and a tripod, along with a fixed camera hanging around my neck, didn’t exactly make me inconspicuous; and as I walked by, I heard people whisper that another foreign journalist was there to cover their tragedy. I was proud that I looked like a professional to these people, but I also felt like I should put down all of this stuff and help calm people who were crying, carry coffins into the truck, or care for those still suffering. This was the first time I had been assigned a story like this, and it made me realise how difficult it must be for journalists to balance their duty to tell the story of terrible events and help the desperate people around them.
I wanted to separate my job that day from my feelings, but I simply couldn’t. This is my country and these were fellow Cambodians suffering around me. I kept imagining how terrible it would feel just to find out that someone I know was among the people who died that night on the bridge. If it was someone I truly loved I can’t imagine how bad it would hurt.
I arrived home with an overwhelming sense of sadness hanging on me. I called my friends who also helped report the story and they were also unable to shake the depression and fear that the day’s events had inspired. I thought about how the water festival has always been a happy time for Cambodian people, and whether that would ever be true again.By: Dara Saoyuth This article was published on Lift, Issue 47 published on December 02, 2010 You can also read the article on Phnom Penh Post website by CLICKING HERE
- Water Festival Ends in Tragedy (saoyuth.wordpress.com)
- Photos in the aftermath of Koh Pich accident (saoyuth.wordpress.com)
- Cambodia stampede: ‘Bodies stacked upon bodies’ in Phnom Penh tragedy (guardian.co.uk)