Scenes of grief amid Cambodia crush carnage
- 23 November 2010
- From the section Asia-Pacific
Calmette Hospital is rarely a happy place at the best of times. It may be Phnom Penh's flagship healthcare centre but facilities are basic.
Now the Diamond Island bridge disaster may have turned it into the saddest corner of Cambodia.
Most of those injured in the crush on Diamond Island bridge were brought there, more than 700 of them - a serious challenge for the limited facilities of Calmette and several other Phnom Penh hospitals.
Patients and staff were forced to improvise. The injured lay on the floor if no bed was available, or stayed in the corridors if there was no room in the wards.
But it was not only the wounded who were brought to Calmette. Many of the hundreds who died came as well.
They were laid out in rows inside a number of the city's hospitals. There were also picture boards outside, where people could perform the potentially heart-breaking task of looking for missing friends and relatives.
The boards made for gruesome viewing. The bodies had been laid on bamboo mats, and head-and-shoulders photos taken. Most of the victims had their eyes closed, but a few of them stared blankly into the lens - suggesting life when it had already been extinguished.
Doun was looking for her younger brother, who had not returned home. She had already been to several other hospitals. Now she was scanning the picture board of the dead outside Calmette Hospital.
She looked in vain. A measure of relief for Doun - perhaps her brother was still alive - but frustration and despair as well.
"I have looked all over and we haven't heard from him," she said. "I am losing hope that he is alive."
Others have already discovered their worst fears are true.
On the night of the disaster, a convoy of emergency vehicles shuttled the dead and injured to Calmette. Now the traffic is going the other way, as the bodies are being claimed and taken away in coffins by funeral vehicles.
At sunset on the evening following the disaster, police barriers held scores of people back from the scene at Diamond Island. The crowd seemed to be a mixture of the curious, the distressed and those who simply wished to pay their respects to the dead.
Srey Luch arrived at the barrier bearing flowers, incense and prayer candles. She was from Kandal province, close to Phnom Penh, and she knew a number of people who were hurt or missing.
"I want to bless the people who died and those who were injured," she said.
The bridge which was the focus of the carnage looks like an illustration from a fairytale - all turrets and twinkling fairy-lights. But it is barely wide enough to accommodate two cars side by side - and woefully inadequate for the numbers celebrating the Water Festival on Diamond Island.
On the night of the disaster the bridge was closed to vehicles. But the human traffic proved overwhelming.
The cause of the panic was not immediately apparent. Electric shocks from the lights, fights among young people and fears that the structure was about to collapse have all been put forward.
Prime Minster Hun Sen has promised a thorough investigation and the authorities may be helped by footage from a TV network which was broadcasting a live music performance from a stage just yards from the bridge.
Thanks to its three decades of civil war and the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era, Cambodia has a reputation as a place where awful things happen. But many of its mostly young population have grown up with peace and relative prosperity, and have never experienced a disaster before.
A waiter in a local cafe feared the anguish may be about to spread. Most of the visitors to the Water Festival are from the rural provinces and some families would only realise their daughters or sons might have been caught in the crush when they failed to return home.
That raises the possibility of bodies going unclaimed for days and the agony of loss continuing as families arrive in the capital in search of the missing.