Cambodia is familiar with ghosts

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodia is a country of ghosts and superstition. Don’t go out at night, they say in the countryside — ghosts. Always live with other people, others say — ghosts. Did you hear the crying last night in the quiet? Ghosts.

Every year in my high school classes in provincial Cambodia I ask my students to rank their greatest fears, and ghosts, despite nagging concerns for HIV, cancer and leeches, always creeps to the top of the list. At first I found this amusing. Now, I get it.

Every single person in this country has been touched by the egalitarian-driven genocide that killed 2 million people between 1975 and 1979. Every single person you see here lost someone during the Khmer Rouge and the apparitions linger and linger. Ghosts.

Now, more wraiths have come for one of Cambodia’s last remaining havens safe from the past: celebration. On Monday night, during the country’s raucous Water Festival in Phnom Penh, which swelled the city’s population from 2 million people to 5 million, nearly 400 people were crushed to death while trying to cross a narrow bridge connecting a small island in the Bassac River.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has called it the worst disaster to beset the country since the Khmer Rouge, personally pledging 5 million riel ($1,250) to the families of the dead.

It’s rumored this country has the most holidays in the world and a glance at the calendar — Constitution Day, Coronation Day, Royal Ploughing Ceremony Day — gives some weight to that claim. They are a time for Cambodians to live it up and forget the past, the poverty, the days slogging behind a water buffalo or inside a garment factory. There’s a sense among most Khmer that says: We lived through hell and so what if we want our holidays long, loud and plentiful?

Monday night’s disaster, however, is a sober reminder that nothing in this genocide-ravaged, impoverished country is safe from tragedy. Cast its lot with the Haitis of the world. A vibrant people ridden by terrible luck yet again.

“This will be a shadow over every boat festival, and it will happen during the water festival next year,” said Youk Chhang, Director of Cambodia’s Documentation Center, which tracks the country’s history. “What happened [Monday] night will have people more cautious. ... This was unexpected. Everyone thought this holiday would be safe.”

I didn’t see the stampede Monday night, though I was in the capital for Water Festival. Phnom Penh is a city that definitely sleeps, but at 10 p.m. Monday night when I finally chose my way home, the streets still teemed with open-shirted Khmer, teeny-bop stands and motorcycles.

Around that time, right when I was deciding I had better get off the streets, a nervous energy began to emerge out of the chaos. All day, everyone had smiled. But as the night dragged itself deeper, the smiles disappeared. By 10 p.m., everyone looked as though they had the same thought as I did. There were too many people. Far too many people.

It’s still unclear what started the stampede that crushed hundreds to death and sent hundreds more to the hospital. But almost all reports agree that something sparked a massive panic on Diamond Island that propelled thousands of people to try and cross a two-lane bridge at the same time. They were scared of something.

All day Tuesday, images of the dead and dying bombarded anyone watching Khmer television, and even international attention has turned its eye to this often-forgotten country sandwiched between a pair of famous neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. But soon, despite the tragedy of Monday night, the international community will become bored and the ghosts will be left to the Khmer alone.

And if there’s anything Cambodia has become familiar with, it’s ghosts.