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Phnom Penh - 12 hours after the tragedy

By: Gabi Yetter Posted: November-23-2010 in
Gabi Yetter

The waiter brought two cups of coffee to our table.

"How are you today?" we asked.

His eyes welled up with tears. "I am not good".

He went on to tell us how he was trying to reach his friend from the provinces whom he feared had been part of the crowd last night, trapped in the Phnom Penh Water Festival stampede that killed and injured hundreds.

Another friend, he told us, managed to jump off the bridge into the water as it started to overflow with people. He lost his mobile phone and shoes in the river and showed up at his friend's house, dripping wet, to tell him what happened.

Seeing the expression on his face and his red rimmed eyes broke my heart. We had been awakened this morning at 5:30am by my brother in London who'd heard the news and needed to know we were safe.

At the time, we'd been sitting on our balcony, drinking beer and chatting with friends that we'd invited to our home for a dinner party. Somewhere between 10 and 11pm, we heard sirens and watched as ambulances raced along Norodam Blvd,wondering what was going on, but we had no idea of the enormity of the incident until the early morning phone call.

For the past three days, we'd been part of it. Mingling with the million plus people who poured into Phnom Penh for the fun-filled annual celebration of boat racing, fireworks and open air concerts.

Everywhere we walked there were throngs of peple, eating on the streets, watching the river activities, holding hands and wearing silly paper hats to protect them from the sun. And everyone we'd seen was smiling, despite the heat, the crowds and the traffic.

The smiles are gone today. As we walked through town this morning to see the scene of the tragedy, people didn't greet us as they usually do. Eyes were downcast and faces sombre. There was a steady stream of people walking along Sihanouk Boulevard to the bridge where more than 300 revellers perished after a concert stampede on the bridge to Diamond Island.

They're calling it the biggest tragedy in Cambodia since the collapse of the Khmer Rouge forty years ago and our waiter told us the government is compensating families who have lost loved ones with $1,250 for every death and $250 for every injury.

It's now more than 14 hours after the incident and, as we sit in our living room, we still hear sirens and the search for bodies in and along the Bassac River continues today.

It's our fourth wedding anniversary and we were planning a day of celebration by taking a day trip out of town. But today, we don't feel like celebrating. We want to be around the people who are now our friends, our neighbours and our colleagues. We want to let them know how painful it is to see their suffering.

A couple of hours after breakfast, we returned to the cafe to check if the waiter had heard any news. His eyes lit up and a smile returned to his face. He'd managed to reach his friend, still at home in his province, and safe.

It warmed our hearts to hear a single story of joy among the sadness. To see one smile among the pain.

But the bridge to Diamond Island will no longer be just be a bridge any more. It will now, for us, be known as the bridge of sighs.

FOR MISSING PERSONS: Info Hotline: 078 7675 60 ~ 74 (15 Lines) Phnom Penh City Hall: 016-866159 / 012-520520 / 016-78888 Ministry of Social Affairs: 012-910000 / 099-860453


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