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Families send off loved ones in disaster’s wake

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Kandal province

Muon Phally says her two young daughters had never visited Phnom Penh before this year’s Water Festival.

When she saw them off from her family home in Takhmao district on Monday evening, the 53-year-old said she was unprepared for the chilling phone calls that arrived in quick succession just a few hours later.

“My body seemed to fly into the sky when I got the news my two daughters and one son-in-law had died,” said Muon Phally, who attended the cremation of her daughters following their funeral yesterday.

Her daughters – 15 and 23 years of age – were among the estimated 456 people crushed to death when Water Festival revellers became trapped on a bridge connecting Diamond Island with Phnom Penh.

The 53-year-old, like dozens of other families across the country yesterday, gathered with a small group of relatives at a pagoda in Takhmao district, lit incense and candles and prayed for the souls of her children.

“I fainted many times when I got the news,” Muon Phally said, recalling Monday’s ordeal. “I thought that they were in a traffic accident – I didn’t think they died while walking at Diamond Island.”

As the tragedy, whose victims were mostly young rural visitors to the capital, has sown grief across the nation this week, anger has also begun to mount over the causes of the accident.
“I feel very sad and angry about what happened,” said Phea Channara, who attended a funeral service for his 24-year-old sister on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
“I wonder if the police really did their job. Why did they allow it to happen in the first place?”

Hun Sangheap, who was on the bridge minutes before the stampede happened and helped pull out victims, said the rescuers were slow to respond to the incident.

“The authorities were very late in saving the victims. The company did not manage the security well,” the 32-year-old said, referring to the island’s private security firm.
In Phnom Penh, at the entrance to the now notorious bridge, still closed off to the public, mourners burned incense and prayed for the souls of the deceased. They also laid out flowers, cake and bananas as offerings.

For many, Diamond Island, a new development that has quickly become a popular place for weddings and parties, has turned to a place of grim misfortune.
Chan Sros, 50, said people would no longer be able to relax at a place that was cursed by such horrors.

“I believe in our Khmer superstitions, so I won’t let my niece get married at this unfortunate place ... I don’t think it can offer good happiness for the bride and groom,” she said.

“The charming bridge which was lit up by beautiful lights at nighttime has become a cold killing bridge. We can’t forget this terrible event.”

Seab Dany, a vendor near the Royal Palace, said getting married on the island would now only result in bad luck.

“Diamond Island has changed from a popular island to Misfortune Island,” she said, “So when we hold wedding parties there, it will not offer good happiness for the owners.”

Thirty-seven-year-old Ly Sovichea compared Diamond Island’s fate to that of a hotel in Sihanoukville that he said was abandoned for many years after a woman hung herself there.

Government officials, however, said people should not associate the Diamond Island development with the tragic events of Monday night, calling on them to enjoy life as they did before the accident.

“It is their thinking and belief, so we can’t say their thinking is wrong or right, but I don’t want them to think in a bad way anymore because it is a selfish idea,” said Dok Narin, under secretary of state of the Ministry of Cults and Religions.

“The Ministry of Cults did not discuss what the people are thinking or [whether they will] stop going to Diamond Island, because we are waiting to see the reason of this terrible tragedy,” he said. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MOM KUNTHEAR AND AFP

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