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Canadian Expat Chi Lo on tragedy in Cambodia

By Chi Lo
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Struggling to breathe: Can Cambodia escape its dark cloud of poverty?

November 24, 2010

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

On my way into work at the Women's Media Centre of Cambodia last Tuesday, I see my coworker rush out the building. I ask Lauth where he is going. He says, "The hospital."

347 Cambodians dead on the bridge stampede, double that number are injured.

I hop on the back of his moto. We rush towards the Soviet-Khmer Friendship Hospital in eastern Phnom Penh.

We arrive at the hospital. Lauth pulls out his press pass and we drive onto the hospital grounds, park, and walk towards a crowd of people gathering around a white bulletin board. It isn't until we get closer that I realize what we are looking at -- pictures of the deceased. A woman in a faded blue sun hat, tears streaming down her face, holds a photo of her battered son. A man with a surgical mask over his face, holds a photo. Lauth asks him questions in Khmer. I take out my video camera and begin filming.

We make our way to the other side of the hospital. The first thing I see are yellow and black feet and toes sticking out from under white sheets. Corpses lie side by side on a tarp on the floor; faces and bodies covered by white, blood-stained sheets. Monks, families, reporters, and policemen fill the area. Workers lay karmas under claimed bodies and lift them into wooden coffins.

Families sit on the surrounding concrete walls, watching, waiting, hoping, praying. We find the woman in the blue hat. She just sits, holding her dead son's face, which, unlike the others, is covered by an orange fleece blanket. Lauth tries to interview her but her words are incomprehensible in between sobs.

The heat in Cambodia that day is overwhelming. Lauth is dripping and sweat has soaked through my clothes. Through the dust, I look up and see a clear blue sky. I wonder at the irony of the dark cloud that Cambodia cannot escape.

It is time to go, but our work isn't done yet. We drive north to Calmette Hospital.

Outside, family members gather, trying to locate loved ones. Inside, a tent. Under it, bodies on rattan mats, exposed for all to see. We interview a family that hasn't been able to find a brother, and run into another colleague. Phalla asks me for a surgical mask, but I don't have one, so I lend a scarf. He needs something to mask the smell of bodies that have not yet been embalmed.

We go into the hospital building and find a woman sitting up on a stretcher, IV attached to her hand. She tells us she walked onto the bridge when it wasn't busy, oblivious to the events that would follow. "When the bridge to Koh Pich became crowded and people began pushing," she says, "I felt like I had no air to breathe." She eventually fainted and doesn't know how she ended up in the hospital.

A 20 year-old garment factory worker from the rural area tells a similar story. She lies on the gurney with her name printed on a piece of paper taped to the wall above her. Her story: she fell. Somebody threw her off the bridge and into the water, and she doesn't know what happened next. Her father, standing by her side, says he received a call at 2 a.m. saying his daughter was in trouble. He bicycled to the nearest town and waited two hours for a hired car, wearing the only clothes he owns.

We duck into the first tent. As Lauth interviews a doctor, I look around at workers embalming bodies with purple faces and eyes half open. The doctor cracks an occasional smile, which I find strange but almost unnerving. Khmers smile in uncomfortable situations. He tells us it is difficult to work under these poor conditions; the hospitals are not equipped to deal with tragedies like this. Many health centres and hospitals receive or have received aid from wealthier countries, but once the aid is gone, facilities also lose the resources they have depended so much on. Cambodia needs a hand up, not a hand out.

Lauth asks if I want to go home. I nod yes. He drops me off and I thank him with a sompiah, hands together in prayer. My roommate is sitting in our kitchen and. I tell her about the images I had just seen and cannot hold back my tears any longer. She holds me tightly in her arms and tells me it will be okay.

For a country that has endured so much, I have learned that the people are ever-resilient. But this, the tragedy on the bridge to Koh Pich, is the worst in decades marred by poverty, lack of education, poor health and corruption. The people of Cambodia must be given guidance on how to sustain themselves. I wonder if this beautiful country I have grown to love will ever truly be okay.

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Chi Lo is a Vancouverite working for the Women's Media Centre of Cambodia. You can read more of her writing at:http://athousandkilometers.blogspot.com.

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