There was no official government ceremony, no solemn invitation to gather, to mourn together, to remember, and so, Uth Rom got up early yesterday morning and travelled to the site of her son’s death on her own.
Carrying a few lotus flowers, incense sticks and a portrait of the young man, Khan Sarat – who died when he was 27 – she took a minibus from her home in Kandal province and rode it to the last stop at the Royal University in Phnom Penh.
From there, she hailed a moto taxi that weaved through traffic and stopped at the western bank of the Tonle Bassac river, where a catastrophic stampede on a bridge two years ago led to the deaths of an estimated 353 people; where a new bridge was built after the old one was demolished; and where a memorial stupa is etched with Sarat’s name.
“I will come to mourn him at this accident place every year,” she said. “I am so sorry, because I deeply loved my son. I had only three children, but one passed away.”
The disaster that struck during the annual Water Festival had its second anniversary yesterday, but casual observers may not have noticed.
The site could have been anywhere in the city. The sun pierced through holes in the clouds while motorbikes buzzed by. A police officer ate a bowl of noodles for lunch. Fisherman trudged through the river with their nets. Compared to the chaos in 2010 that ensued on the bridge connecting Koh Pich, or Diamond Island, to the western shore, it was a tranquil setting.
Two years ago, the bridge was packed with people celebrating the Water Festival, a jubilant occasion full of fireworks and cheer that coincides with the annual reversal of the river’s current. This year, in the wake of the October 15 death of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, the government cancelled the holiday. In 2011, it was cancelled because of nationwide flooding.
Rom was not the only person who came to mark the occasion, though there weren’t many. Friends and family trickled in throughout the day.
Tep Samnang, 23, walked up to the stupa after stepping off a motorbike. He lit incense sticks, placed lotus flowers in a ceremonial bier, and thought of his friend, Tep Vannarith, a 21-year-old at the time who called him that night and invited him to come join the festivities.
Traffic was the only thing that got in Samnang’s way. He called Vannarith to tell him that he wouldn’t make it, but his friend wasn’t picking up his phone. He learned the news on television when he returned home.
“I feel so terrible and so sorry when I think of this…” he said. “I will remember him forever, my whole life, and come to mourn my dead friend and other victims’ spirits every year whenever I am alive,” he said.
Later in the afternoon, hours after Rom left, members of the Sam Rainsy Party held a commemorative event. They knelt down on mats while monks chanted prayers. Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua stood up to demand a complete investigation into a tragedy for which no one was ever held responsible.
But when Rom was there, no one gave a speech. She said she was surprised that the city had not organised something for the families of victims.
A Phnom Penh municipality spokesman said there was no official event because of the massive effort it took to brace the city for the ASEAN summits this past week.
Rom’s family took matters into their own hands. Her husband, Phal Khan, 55, said in a phone interview that he asked if Rom would take the photo to the site in Phnom Penh.
Once she arrived, she placed his portrait on the platform of the memorial stupa and prayed. She was finished by 9am, and headed home, where her husband did the same thing as last year, inviting monks to pray and offering them food.
He’ll do the same again next year. Moving on is unlikely. He said he can still remember every minute of his son’s life.
To contact the reporter on this story: Kim Yuthana at [email protected]