Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Telling the story of a tragedy

Telling the story of a tragedy

Telling the story of a tragedy

Two of Lift’s writers were able to work with staff reporters covering the aftermath of the tragedy at Phnom Penh hospitals. This is what they saw.

Relatives of victims search for a photo of thier loved two days after the stampede. Top right: Heng Chivoan, Bottom photo: Dara SAOYUTH

The news of a stampede killing hundreds of people was shocking and heartbreaking to me, as I’m sure it was for everyone in my country, especially those of us who have never faced tragedy on this scale. If you were in Phnom Penh last week, there was no way to avoid the suffering in the wake of the stampede, but as part of the team of reporters who covered the event for the Phnom Penh Post, I had to face the pain first hand.

I was fast asleep when my phone rang at 12 o’clock on Monday night. I picked up and my friend told me that 180 people had died on a bridge on Koh Pich island. In my sleepy haze I thought it was a joke, but when another friend called and told me that people had been electrocuted and they were showing the scene on Bayon TV, it became obvious that something terrible had really occurred.

I didn’t want to wake my family by turning on the TV so I quickly logged on to Facebook and many of my friends were already sharing information and trading stories about the stampede. Many of the questions and doubts that I had that evening also couldn’t answered by the various news outlets I checked over the next two hours and I decided to go to sleep and save my power to help in the search for truth when I woke up in the morning.

My best laid plans were ruined as a steady stream of phone calls from siblings, friends and relatives continued to keep me awake. Most of them wanted to make sure I wasn’t at the event, and they were happy to hear that I wasn’t. Yet, in many ways, I wish I was, so that I could have seen what was happening and helped people caught in the crush of humans.

When I woke up from my brief sleep, just about every TV station in the country was showing video of the piles of young people, stuck together, breathless and completely helpless. It was a scene that I thought was impossible. Even though I was looking at it, I still couldn’t imagine how so many people had died on that bridge.

I was working at the Phnom Penh Post office when I was asked to accompany an English journalist on a reporting trip to Calmette hospital and help interview Cambodian doctors, victims and their family members. When I arrived people were walking around in a frenzy, searching for their relatives in the rows of bodies outside the hospital, masses of injured people waiting for care inside or on a board that was posted with pictures and messages relating to people who were lost after the stampede.

A number of people were still suffering greatly. Their relatives stood over them sobbing and doing whatever they could to help ease the pain of their loved ones. Of all the things I saw, this was the most disturbing and it was all I could do to hold back tears as I thought about how I would feel in their situation.

There were still dozens of corpses in the parking lot, ether unidentified or still unclaimed by family members in the provinces. I walked into the area where the corpses were lying and I watched family members come by, lifting up the sheets to find their relatives.

It was evening by the time we left the hospital and the city was eerie in its silence. The superstitious city dwellers were swapping rumours related to the stampede and offering fruit and cakes to the deceased, which struck me as rather strange and frightening. The price of bananas had already gone up significantly. It’s incredible how people are willing to take advantage of such a terrible event.

The uneasiness I felt driving home stayed with me throughout the night. Nightmares were filled with ghosts and spirits. I am proud to have been part of the many reporters and journalist who worked together to tell the story of the stampede; however, it was also the most shocking story of my life.

Having come to Phnom Penh to pursue higher education from my home in the provinces, it is rare that I have a few days off to visit my family. So, rather than join the millions of people who came to Phnom Penh, I made the opposite trip and went home for the festival weekend.

I was ssleep in my parents house, enjoying the comforts of familiar places, when my parents woke me up. I was rather annoyed, seeing that it was 2am, but once I understood what they were telling me, questions began to come to my mind, which was having an impossible time accepting that hundreds of people has actually died on the Koh Pich bridge.

Most of the questions involved the status of my friends still in the city and I frantically dialed numbers and sent out SMS messages to find out if people were okay. Some of my friends had a similar reaction to mine upon being woken up – annoyed – but it was worth it to me to hear their voices.

I left the provinces at 12am, with few of my initial questions answered. As soon as I finished my lunch upon my return to the city, I hurriedly put my camera, recorder, notebook and a bottle of water into my backpack and rushed to the Phnom Penh Post office. I was asked by my editor to help another reporter, who was from America, to shoot a documentary about the event. After being so far away from the event earlier in the day, I was anxious to find out what really happened in my nation.

The Cambodian-Russian Friendship hospital was teeming with crowds of victims’ relatives as we arrived. I immediately became overwhelmed by sadness, but this was the truth I wanted to see. For those involved in the stampede, desperation was the only emotion there was in the days after the stampede. We spent almost an hour walking around the hospital and nothing like tiredness even crossed my mind. I was too filled with sympathy and pity to consider anything else.

There were two big boards with victims’ photos stuck on either side. Some people burst into tears when they saw photos of their relatives lying dead. I couldn’t imagine. My friends and family were okay but I was still barely able to look at the rows of photos.

I talked with a girl who was among the many family members roaming the halls and tending to their kin. I talked to a girl who said her aunt was still alive in a nearby room, but was unable to move any part of her body. She said a few more words, but then stopped. As her eyes filled with tears, I couldn’t bear to ask any more questions or push her to talk more. My heart truly ached for her and all the others in her situation.

The fact that I was carrying a camera bag and a tripod, along with a fixed camera hanging around my neck, didn’t exactly make me inconspicuous; and as I walked by, I heard people whisper that another foreign journalist was there to cover their tragedy. I was proud that I looked like a professional to these people, but I also felt like I should put down all of this stuff and help calm people who were crying, carry coffins into the truck, or care for those still suffering. This was the first time I had been assigned a story like this, and it made me realise how difficult it must be for journalists to balance their duty to tell the story of terrible events and help the desperate people around them.

I wanted to separate my job that day from my feelings, but I simply couldn’t. This is my country and these were fellow Cambodians suffering around me. I kept imagining how terrible it would feel just to find out that someone I know was among the people who died that night on the bridge. If it was someone I truly loved I can’t imagine how bad it would hurt.

I arrived home with an overwhelming sense of sadness hanging on me. I called my friends who also helped report the story and they were also unable to shake the depression and fear that the day’s events had inspired. I thought about how the water festival has always been a happy time for Cambodian people, and whether that would ever be true again.


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