Amid the tragedy, good news for Sarim

A child’s tiny sandal lay half-buried in mud and garbage, a tragic reminder of the stampede on Phnom Penh’s Diamond Island Monday night which left more than 340 people dead and hundreds seriously injured.

Dozens of onlookers and worried friends and relatives of those who either perished or have yet to be identified gathered in the early morning hour. They watched in stunned silence near the bridge where the tragedy occurred at the close of the Khmer Water Festival, the typically Cambodian lightness absent from their steps, their faces and, likely, from their hearts. Inside the cordoned area, investigators sifted through the clothing, shoes and debris left on the bridge connecting the island to Phnom Penh.

A handful of vendors sold street food here and there, bringing a semblance of normalcy to the eerie pall cast over the city as an uncharacteristically misty grey sky greeted the day. Nearby, garbage trucks cleared debris from the streets and workers dismantled the dozens of vendor stalls erected for the three-day annual festival. Another worker contemplated an enormous stack of cases of beer
left unconsumed as he began to load them onto a waiting truck.

Sarim, a waiter at the Java Café on Sihanouk Boulevard, started his shift as usual on Tuesday but with a heavy heart. He had been unable to reach a friend from his hometown who was missing after a night of revelry at the water festival, which drew an estimated four million Cambodians to the shores of the

Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers. Cell phone calls and text messages had gone unanswered, and the fact of not knowing his friend’s fate weigfhed heavily on Sarim’s slight frame.

“My body is at work but my thoughts and heart are at home in my village,” he said, blinking back tears, his red-rimmed eyes vacant pools of sadness. Another of his friends had been lucky – he had leapt from the bridge into the Bassac River as the panic began when an estimated one million people swarmed

from the tiny island and onto the bridge. He swam to shore and made his way to the apartment he and Sarim share in Phnom Penh, losing his cell phone and his shoes in the process.

Sarim and a co-worker at Java said the government has agreed to cover the costs of medical care for those injured in the crushing crowd. They had also heard the government was offering payments to the families of the dead and injured. Word travels fast here, and for once the rumors were accurate. The government announced early Tuesday that it would pay $1,250 each to families of the dead, and $250 to those who were injured in the tragedy.

For Sarim , the lunchtime rush at Java Café also brought welcome news from his friend in Kampong Cham province.

“He is fine…he is at home in the province,” Sarim beamed from behind the coffee counter at the trendy restaurant located about a quarter mile from where the tragedy took place only hours earlier.

Outside, ambulance sirens continued to wail periodically throughout the morning past workers laboring in the morning sun to clear debris from the city’s streets as Phnom Penh resumed its characteristic thrum. Citizens went about their business, their ever-present toothy smiles replaced by grim faces and downcast eyes, creating tragic images in a country where misery and loss are all-too familiar realities.