Grief and Emotion Fill Nation’s Day of Mourning

In a sunrise ceremony yesterday, the nation’s leaders joined throngs of mourners at the foot of the Diamond Bridge, where wreaths were laid in memory of the hundreds known to have perished in Monday’s stampede.

Prime Minister Hun Sen alongside his wife, Bun Rany, were flanked by a cortege of Cabinet ministers who appeared visibly shaken by the disaster.

As he lit a candle and incense sticks meters away from where at least 347 people died, Mr Hun Sen wept, at one moment kneeling down in front of an arrangement of flowers and raising both hands to his forehead.

After his departure, thousands more arrived throughout the day to offer lotus flowers, incense sticks and words of remembrance for the deceased. Many looked to the sky to pray. Others stopped to write a message in books of condolence that had been laid out.

“As I am a Cambodian child, I would like to share my shock to this tragedy. I regret that this event ended in tears,” read one message.

“I pray for every family, every person affected. I hope we never forget how precious life is. God bless Cambodia,” read another.

Yesterday morning as the offerings and condolences grew in number, Theh Sovannarith, his limp arm in a sling stained with dirt, was scouting the area for a police officer who had helped rescue him on the night of the stampede. He wanted to give a present to the man he believes saved his life.

“It is a sad and shocking story. I cannot find the words to describe it,” he said. “I can no longer sleep.”

“The image I will never be able to forget is not those on the TV screen, but the ones of people at the bottom of the pile screaming for help and the blood coming out from their nose and mouth before they died,” he continued. “It is an unforgettable image with the murmur for help. Help. Help me. Help my child. Help my sister. Help my mother.”

Many of those who came to the bridge yesterday knew nobody involved in the disaster and simply came to spare a thought for those no longer with us.

“I just feel like I have to come, as too many people died in such a short time,” said Long Sopoan, 23, a student from Phnom Penh. “It’s just too sad and unthinkable.”

After rows of Phnom Penh police had paid their respects, Municipal Police Chief Touch Naruth looked to distance his forces from responsibility for letting so many people onto the bridge at once.

When asked whether anyone within the police force would be asked to step down from their position he said, “No, not yet because we felt the authorities tried their best to protect people’s security around the area.”

“It is just an accident that took place, and we helped a lot of people to survive,” he said.

Throughout the day, people arrived at the foot of the bridge in drips and drabs. And at 4 pm, the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation, the private firm that operates Koh Pich island, held its own private ceremony on the bridge in memory of all those who perished Monday night.

OCIC’s chief executive Pung Kheav Se walked alongside a procession of monks to the middle of the bridge, where he participated in a Buddhist mourning ceremony known as Baing Sa’Koul. With his shoes off, he lit candles and helped to fill three small wooden boats with offerings of rice, pig heads, spices and fruit.

The boats were then carried down to the river past rows of mourners skirting the two sides of the bridge and gently set adrift.

“On behalf Koh Pich Company’s general director, I would like to share my grief with the families of the dead and all the victims in this incident,” a Buddhist priest read through a megaphone.

As the sun came down over the bridge, its bright multicolored lights came on. Thousands of spectators had gathered on Koh Pich island as Cambodia’s national day of mourning came to a close.

“Please rest in peace,” said one elderly woman who stood on the riverbank below Diamond Bridge.

 

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