An observer remembers the haunting problem at the bridge, a day before the tragic water festival.
From a New Mandala reader in Cambodia:
“… I have just gone to Koh Pich. There is a big problem at the bridge. Too many people trying to cross and many vendors blocking the way. Soon people are going to die from a stampede”.
This is a text message that remains in the SMS draft folder of my mobile. I wrote it two days ago after I had just crossed the bridge back from Koh Pich (Diamond Island) to the market area in front of the Naga Casino. I thought of sending it to people that might know people with authority to do something about the situation before it was too late. But I never did.
As I crossed the bridge, squeezed in the crammed crowd of mostly families and young Cambodians, I had an overwhelming sense that the children near my feet would be crushed if the crowd surged. When I found cart vendors partially blocking the off ramp I became infuriated and cursed some of them, but the best I could do was manage to force the worst offender to move her cart to the side. It seemed like a hopeless situation. The bridge was too narrow for the crowd.
I took photos of the bridge crowd with the intention of showing police or security working nearby. But the closest security I could find were occupied making sure none of the crowds sat on the wall of the casino. The nearest police were occupied manning road blocks and collecting bribes from motorists entering designated pedestrian areas.
I thought the photos I took didn’t convey the seriousness of the problem and nobody will pay attention to me. So, I put the thought of a possible stampede on the bridge to the back of my mind and moved on to the main riverside area to enjoy watching the boat racing, float procession and fireworks. Later I escaped the riverside crowds into a tourist bar for a drink and relayed my concerns about the bridge to the expat bar manager. He explained to me that Cambodians were much more patient and better at dealing with crowds than us westerners. I felt more at ease.
This morning I woke up to hear that last night at least 345 people, mostly young Cambodians, died at the bridge.
Questions remained: What caused the tragedy and what could prevent it from repeating itself in the future? (Photo by Heng Sinith)
This post was originally published on New Mandala in November 2010.