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Festival haunts survivors

Festival haunts survivors

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Security officers and bystanders pick their way through discarded shoes and sandals on the bridge to Diamond Island after the deadly stampede last November.

The annual Water Festival is reviving memories of the hundreds of people killed last year in the stampede on the bridge to Diamond Island. Many survivors say they cannot block the images of tragedy from flashing in their minds and creeping into their dreams.

“Images of the stampede are racing through my mind,” Ung Nget said. “I’m still afraid of crowded places.”

The 27-year-old repairman said he was lucky to survive but remained haunted by what he saw.

“I was one of the people who were tangled in the pile of victims on the bridge,” he said.

When Ung Neget thinks of the Water Festival, he still sees the corpses.

“I want to try to force myself to walk across that bridge, but I cannot. I cannot push away the images of the dead and injured people all around me. I can still hear them,” he said.

“When I dream, the dead people are calling me to go with them. I try to hit them until I wake up.

“Even when I am talking to you about this now, I feel goose bumps.”

Most of the 347 who died in the stampede were women. It began about 10pm as crowds crossed the bridge for concerts and other attractions.

Ung Nget was in the midst of the stampede, and tangled among the bodies of those who had fallen. He was covered in blisters and close to death when he was rescued.

He recalls feeling panic, terror, then a final hopelessness. He remembers calling for help from his grandfather, who had died three years before. He felt his grandfather’s spirit come to him and believes this is why he survived.

“I will not go [to this year’s event] and told my brother not to go, because I feel that the same thing will happen again,” Ung Nget said.

Another survivor, who asked that only her first name, Leoung, be used, said it was unbearable to even hear the name of the bridge.

“I am lucky to be alive, but I lost my baby sister,” Leoung said.

Like others who survived or lost family members, she refuses to use the bridge. “I cannot forget the sounds of people screaming for help. I cannot forget the images of the dead.

“The Water Festival is a time for all Cambodians to remember those who died.

“I don’t want to say the festival should be cancelled, because it is our traditional festival, but I will not participate in it for the rest of my life.”

Motodop Sok Keang, 35, said there was an eerie feeling in the city this year.

Sok Keang said he had stayed in Phnom Penh rather than visiting his family in Prey Veng province because he was hoping to earn money during the festival, which had always been an easy time to get customers.

Yesterday, he parked his motorbike a few metres from the bridge waiting for customers.

“I waited for an hour, but there were no customers,” he said.

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