Please note that VSO has strict blogging guidelines. I have tried at all times to keep to these. However it should be made clear that the views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not reflect those of VSO.
Unaware of the events of the night before in Phnom Penh, I was awakened this morning at about 2.00am by Joan, urgently enquiring if I was alright. I had spent most of the previous evening posting up on this blog my positive reflections on the Water Festival, along with some little photo shots I had taken. I have never been anywhere (except perhaps an Indian train) where I had seen so many people all in one place together in short a small space and the festival mood was everywhere in Phnom Penh. I wanted to capture some of that for the blog – that in among all the political and economic problems that face the people of Cambodia, there is a really strong, positive, optimistic character to much of their lives, a resilience and determination and a really good-humoured sense of fun which easily breaks out into big smiles.
I know the place where this tragedy occurred. It is less than a kilometre from my house. A new development is being built on ‘Diamond Island’ – there is a major exhibition centre, commercial units, a small park and an ambition to develop housing and other lucrative real estate. There are two bridges into and out of the area. They are working bridges with ornamental decorative features and can take two cars passing narrowly by each other. The Phnom Penh Post has said that many of those who died were electrocuted – how the electrocution took place we can only speculate but that will certainly have contributed to the panic (see http://tinyurl.com/258rvpy ). Everywhere around here there is wiring at just above head height, diy connections, taped up electrical wires – it’s a crazy tangle.
Earlier in the evening, I had myself become slightly worried by being trapped in a crowd in a different part of the city. I walked out of my lane to go to an internet cafe in order to upload to my blog at about 7.00 and I discovered that my street and all adjacent streets were jammed. Effectively all the pavements (such as they are) are used as parking places (since cars/motorbikes are not allowed beyond a certain point) so pedestrians have to take to the street, along with cars, motos and tuktuks. As is the way in Cambodia, there are no rules on the road. Scared that if they do not inch forward , they will be forever trapped without moving, since no-one allows anyone else to go first, each bike, pedestrian (a lot more of these than usual since there are so few motorbikes allowed through), car or tuktuk pushes forward into the miniscule spaces left by others, thus making an overall jam even more likely. The sheer volumes of people converging on the big crossroads along from my place, combined with the police road block preventing vehicles from entering adjacent streets, had led to complete gridlock. I was able to pick my way through bikes and tuktuks, placing my feet carefully into little spaces which thankfully remained as spaces. On one occasion I stepped over via a car bumper as there was no space otherwise.
But even with such ‘clever’ movement, all I managed to do was to get myself further into the jam. I came to a point where all the available little spaces that a pedestrian could squeeze through were stopped by other people in front of me. I began to realise that I could not go any further forward. Everyone in all directions was stopped but still people from behind were pushing up. Had it been only a crowd of pedestrians, there could have been a crush, but the motos, tuktuks and cars have to stop completely, unlike a crowd. A crowd carries on unthinking, only trying to move back when it is too late and those behind are still pushing forward, oblivious to what is happening in front. Eventually I was able to move a little and then took advantage of a gap on the pavement to squeeze in front of a car and get into a place from where I could pass the police barrier and go along a still crowded street, but one where movement was still possible. During Water Festival evenings these kinds of crushes and crowds are part of life and so no-one would be surprised to find such crowds on Diamond Island, with its attractions and the concert taking place. In the wide open boulevards of the main city, with little run-off lanes down the side, even very big crowds can always find a way out if there is too much pressure from behind. But the pressure from behind on a narrow bridge would be enough to cause a crush, should someone fall, or a contrary group, oblivious of risk, try to make their way against the main flow (a daily occurrence on the streets of PP).
In Britain, our experience of events such as the Ibrox and Hillsborough football ground disasters led to new design rules for big stadia and other places where crowd crushes can occur, but even as recently as 2001, there were problems on the open streets of Edinburgh at Hogmanay ( http://tinyurl.com/3y7kwme ). Crowds and narrow spaces are dangerous in any country: in looking up the Edinburgh Hogmanay reference I came across this interesting report: A review of the management of crowd safety at outdoor street/special events (found at http://tinyurl.com/2eu8kqv )
Some of the happy crowds of the Cambodian water festival and their families have learned about Health and Safety a very hard way. Stop for a moment of quiet reflection and/or prayer in their memory.