Funeral of 12 year old boy killed in Cambodia bridge crush turns ugly.
Sambathvichea Keo, desperately jumped from the Diamond Bridge last Monday evening to escape the deadly crush in which he found himself caught. He died in the jump. Ugly scenes as fighting breaks out at his funeral. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 25/11/2010
As tourists walk past the Garden Bar today, situated in a prime location on the main riverfront street in Phnom Penh, they see it’s shutters are down; no one sits around the pavement tables which are typically packed with foreigners drinking and eating. No happy hour here today.
The bar owner’s 12-year-old son, Sambathvichea Keo, desperately jumped from the Diamond Bridge last Monday evening to escape the deadly crush he found himself caught up in. He died as his young body crashed into submerged rocks and metal in a shallow area of the river under the bridge. Other festivalgoer’s who jumped to freedom were luckier; they landed in deeper water and swam to survive and to tell their tale. Nearly 400 other Cambodian’s as well as Sambathvichea lost their lives in this tragedy and hundreds more were injured.
Sambathvichea attended the traditional water festival with his two sisters who lost contact with him as he ventured onto the bridge. On seeing the mayhem and panic in the area they returned home without him to tell their father and family of the problems at Diamond Island. At 10pm on Monday 22nd November 2010, their father, the 40-year-old bar owner Kosal Keo, mounted an intensive search for his son, assisted by his manager Poulouk Sahai and his younger brother Rithy Keo. Family and friends desperately scoured the area and three city hospitals in their search for the boy.
“We looked everywhere. We went to the Calmette, Russia and Red Cross hospitals all night without finding him,” Rithy Keo recounts. “Around 4.30pm we received a call from Sambathvichea’s friend Kakada who was working at the Calmette hospital carrying bodies into the hospital. Kakada told us that he had seen Sambathvichea who was dead.”
“We all went to the hospital to make plans for the traditional [funeral] ceremony which ends this afternoon,” he continues as his family view images of the dead young boy taken by the bar manager on a small camera.
“The funeral will take place at 3pm this afternoon, please come,” says the 47-year-old bar manager Poulouk Sahi who also is a close friend of the family. He looks at his camera with sadness as he shows me the sepulchral
images which he took of his employer’s dead young son on that bleak and tragic night.
Sambathvichea’s prematurely curtailed life was, even before this event, already darkened by circumstances out of his control, as were his final moments. Both his father and his mother have HIV and are separated. His mother’s family is poor and, according to a relative at the funeral, they aggressively: “blame Kosal Keo [her husband] for infecting Sambathvichea’s mother with HIV and her continued poverty.”
Happiness in his 12 years centered on his school. His friends at the funeral told me that: “he loved learning at school and was very clever.” His school friends lined the route into the Temple where he was to be cremated.
Tears flowed at the funeral firstly conducted in a tiny home and then through the streets of his poor community in Phnom Penh. His cousin, clothed in a white robe, was inconsolable. After the funeral cortege arrived at the temple monks again prayed and chanted to the mourners.
During the traditional Buddhist ‘circling’ of the coffin one of the boys on his mother’s side of the family: “stole Sambathvichea’s spirit [the white diamond shaped icon carried around at the service] and tried to run with it from the Temple area,” an onlooker who wished to remain anonymous explained to me.
This resulted in the re-ignition of the family feud between his mothers and fathers relatives. Punches and bellicose screams, pugnacious relatives, at this unfortunate boy’s final farewell. Monks conducting the ceremony looked on in disbelief.
Apparently, now the symbol of his spirit has been removed from the Temple area he “will not be reborn,” again according to my translator.
Whatever the significance of this mysterious and ritualistic event, and the ensuing battle between his maternal parents’ families, it was a very sad farewell to this bright young boy’s short life, unfairly curtailed by the tragic crush which took place on the Diamond Bridge two days earlier.