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Ghosts Descend on Bridge of Death

Haunted ... Sopheap Meng at the end of Rainbow Bridge, where his brother Sovaan died on Monday night. Photo: Ben Doherty

PHNOM PENH: The short, narrow suspension bridge that links Phnom Penh with Diamond Island has not re-opened, but it hardly matters. Few are likely to walk on it again.

The Khmers of Cambodia are Buddhists, but they hold strongly to ancient animist beliefs. The bridge is a bad place now. The spirits of those killed – the 347 who died when a crowd celebrating the water festival stampeded here on Monday night – will keep people away.

Sopheap Meng has come back one last time to farewell his brother. They were together when the panic hit.

He gripped Sovaan’s hand as tightly as he could, fighting the crush that pushed 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, onto my arm, so I had to let go.”

Dragged out by police, it was hours before he found his brother. Sovaan’s corpse, bruised and bloodied, was among the crush of lifeless bodies on Rainbow Bridge.

Sopheap lives with his family north of the capital in Kandal province. He will not return to this bridge again. “Never,” he says.

All week, this city has sought a way to cope. Monks have held vigils, family members have burned incense, flowers and fruit have been left by the water’s edge.

It is a city still in shock.

The Prime Minister, Hun Sen, said it was Cambodia’s “greatest tragedy in more than 31 years after the Pol Pot regime”.

Under the Khmer Rouge leader a quarter of the population, an estimated 1.7 million people, was killed from 1975 to 1979.

“I ask you all to understand me and forgive me for this very bad situation,” Mr Sen said.

The Khmer Rouge wiped out a generation of Cambodia’s best and brightest. It targeted the educated.

This week, again, it is the country’s future that has born the brunt of tragedy.

This disaster took the young. Most of those killed – 221 of the 347 – were girls, physically unable to resist the crush of human bodies pushing them to the ground.

The government has pre-empted its own inquiry, due to report next week, by saying it was a rumour that the bridge was about to collapse that began the stampede.

As the panic grew, the mass of people on the bridge pressed closer together as everyone fought to find a way out.

People began to lose consciousness. Those who fell were trampled under the hundreds of feet of helpless people being pushed backwards and forwards by the force of the crowd.

Afterwards, most of the dead were found here, on the bridge. Bodies were four and five deep in places.

Some had sought refuge by jumping from the bridge into the water. Some drowned – it is believed they fell unconscious into the river – but most of those who jumped survived. The water was barely waist deep.

The finger pointing over who is to blame has begun in earnest.

The government has admitted overcrowding on the narrow bridge was not a contingency it had planned for.

“We were concerned about the possibilities of boats capsizing and pick-pocketing. We did well, but we did not think about this kind of incident,” a spokesman, Khieu Kanharith, conceded.

But he said security on the three bridges that span Phnom Penh and Diamond Island, also known as Koh Pich, was the responsibility of the company that built them, the island’s developer, the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation (OCIC).

The OCIC in turn laid blame with the government’s police force. “It happened mainly near Diamond Island, but … not really on the island,” a project manager, Susi Tani, said.

“For the policing [responsibility], it is the government. We built the bridge; we are not responsible for the public. What we try doing is assist the public. We don’t have the right to control the public.”

One hundred and six private security guards and 12 police officers were on Diamond Island on Monday night, jointly responsible, it seems, for crowd control.

But as the night of celebrations reached a climax, and the crowd grew larger and larger, it appeared no one was in control.

Sopheap Meng wants answers, and he wants someone to blame. He knows he will probably have neither.

“Our family is very sad. We cannot believe this has happened … it should never have happened. My brother shouldn’t have died.”

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