Meas Phearum still vividily remembers being pinned along with hundreds of other young Cambodians last November on Diamond Island’s now infamous northern bridge.
“I was stuck for about four hours, and I had to stay at Calmette Hospital for two weeks for treatment,” the 23-year-old from Kandal province recalled yesterday.
“My legs still sometimes feel like numb flesh, even though I can walk.”
This Sunday marks six months since the Diamond Island stampede disaster, which killed 353 people, injured another 393 and is sure to loom large in the minds of many Cambodians for years to come.
Meas Phearum said he had been to Diamond Island just once since the accident last year, a visit that called back his horrific memories of the tragedy.
“I have told my relatives and friends not to come to such crowded sites, because it could happen again,” he said.
Many Phnom Penh residents said, however, that they had largely managed to put the incident behind them.
“I used to feel afraid, but after about a week, I did not feel scared coming here,” said Y Thida, 20, who was enjoying an afternoon on Diamond Island yesterday. “It seems now like nothing happened.”
Sokha Khemou, 16, said he too had moved on from the tragedy.
“After the monks held a few ceremonies there, I didn’t feel scared anymore,” he said. “I visit Diamond Island four times a week with my classmates and we cross the bridge.”
Touch Samnang, project manager and architect for Diamond Island development from the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation, claimed yesterday that most other local residents had similar feelings.
“Many people have come to visit Diamond Island every day and on the weekend, and the visitor totals have increased,” he said.
In the aftermath of the incident, the government offered cash payments of five million riel (US$1,244) to the families of victims, who also received donations from the Royal family and the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation, the Diamond Island Developer. No officials, however, took responsibility for the tragedy.
The official government investigation, released a week after the stampede, concluded that it was an accident caused by the swaying of the bridge, but did not explore issues of negligence or crowd management in any detail.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday that the government had nonetheless learned “critical lessons” from the Water Festival tragedy that it would carry forward in planning for similar events in the future.
“A number of mechanisms are going to be involved to prevent these things from happening again,” he said, saying that the government planned to train police officers in first aid and improve its emergency response capabilities during large-scale gatherings.
But Yim Sovann, spokesman for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said the government’s response to the tragedy was a lesson in the impunity enjoyed by high-ranking officials guilty of misconduct.
“They must be [held] responsible because of their neglect and their incapacity to guarantee the safety of the victims,” he said.
“We have to eliminate impunity from our society – otherwise it will happen again in the future.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JAMES O’TOOLE