It's been four years since San Thida had what she described as the biggest shock of her life: a phone conversation with an apologetic stranger on the other end, telling her to pick up her younger sister’s body from Calmette Hospital.
Despite being a shy girl averse to crowds and who rarely went out, Thida’s sister, Moeun Sophal, had insisted on joining millions of revellers to take in the lights and colour of the 2010 Water Festival.
Although the 28-year-old garment worker had begged others to come with her, no one wanted to, so she went alone.
“She asked my uncle and the neighbours to go to Koh Pich with her and she told everyone that Koh Pich was very beautiful and she had seen it on television, but no one came along,” Thida, 34, said yesterday at her home in Phnom Penh’s Kilometre Six commune in Russei Keo district. “I don’t know why she really wanted to go to the Water Festival. It seemed like someone’s spirit brought her out.”
It was November 22, the last day of the three-day festival. That night, Thida began hearing rumours from neighbours that the Koh Pich, or Diamond Island, bridge had collapsed. In a panic, she tried to call Sophal, but the line rang out.
Hours later, a stranger eventually picked up Sophal’s phone.
“It was the biggest shock of my life when a man answered and said ‘I am so sorry, your sister has passed away’.” The body had been taken from the bridge to Calmette.
The resumption of the Water Festival this year, the first to be held since a bridge stampede sparked by fears that the structure was collapsing killed 353 people, including Sophal, in 2010, is kindling traumatic memories.
“I do not want anyone to talk about the Water Festival or Koh Pich. I don’t want to see the Water Festival anymore, but I can’t stop the government from celebrating it because it’s our traditional Khmer ceremony,” Thida said.
Her young children played around the room yesterday as she spoke, seemingly oblivious to their mother’s tears.
But Thida says she has played videos to them showing the devastating aftermath of the stampede – hundreds of trampled and suffocated bodies on the bridge – to ward them off ever joining the festival.
As she rifles through folders of documents on the floor, searching for a photo of Sophal, Thida explains why her sister’s picture is not displayed above one of the many Buddhist shrines in her house.
“I keep it somewhere hidden from me, because I will miss her when I see her photo.”
She says it feels like no time at all has passed since the tragedy occurred. Thida also fears that if something goes awry this year, the authorities will again fail to respond quickly and adequately.
No government official was ever held accountable for the 2010 disaster, which was characterised by Prime Minister Hun Sen as an unexpected “mistake”.
Although Kong Sam Ol, the chairman of the Permanent Committee for Organising National and International Festivals, tendered his resignation after the stampede, the premier refused to accept it.
Mom Ratha, 27, was on the bridge when the stampede occurred in 2010, but he does not fear the festival’s return.
“I was alone on the bridge, and there were a lot of people surrounding me. It was very difficult and I could not move. It was very hot, but luckily the people that tried to help us sprayed water at the hordes of people,” he said.
Ratha actually wants to attend this year, but his mother has forbidden him from doing so.
In 2010, he had come secretly to the capital from Takeo province, selling some of her chickens to pay his way.
“Even though I can’t forget about the [stampede], I am not afraid anymore, because I don’t think it can happen every year.”
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said yesterday that a memorial ceremony would not be held during this year’s festival, as it would scare attendees.
“Why do you like to mix together the past and present?” he said.
“If we do it, it would be like if we were in a plane and they played a video of the Malaysia Airlines crash.”