KANDAL PROVINCE - Suong Buntha finished her factory work early on Thursday. She went home at 4pm to prepare food and wait for her 13-year-old daughter to return from her English class so they could enjoy dinner together as a family.
However, Chenda Jolie did not return home that day. Her dead body was found on Friday morning following the sinking of the ferry that transported her and 14 other children from their studies to home in Kandal Province.
Holding Jolie’s portrait at Kompong Phnom Knong pagoda, Buntha shed tears as she spoke about her daughter, who liked to “walk like a model”.
“After work, I wanted to see her. I would be very happy to see her and I arrived home at 4pm, before her. I waited for her to come so we could eat dinner together. The food was ready but we couldn't eat together; she had died,” Buntha said.
The grieving mother remembers Jolie as a good student. Like the other 14 children, she wanted a better future by studying English in Kompong Phnom commune, where their parents and grandparents are mostly farmers.
The students hail from Koh Chamroeun village, a five-minute ferry drive from the mainland. The seasonal tributary, which runs into the Mekong River, connects the village with the mainland. In November to December, the stretch of water dries up and residents can walk or drive across it.
The village is home to 529 families, comprising 1,009 people. Most work as farmers growing radish, corn, beans, sesame, rice and bananas. During Covid-19, farmers were severely impacted, with mango and other produce prices declining. This forced farmers to grow alternatives, said Kompong Phnom commune chief Nov Touch.
Residents frequently use the ferry to attend school and conduct other business during the rainy season and, on this occasion, rising water levels. When the ferry capsized, the water was about three meters deep. Only one of the 15 children could swim.
Days before the ferry sank, Buntha had asked her daughter not to attend school anymore because of fears over rising water levels. Buntha also asked Jolie not to study English because it is dark and unsafe when she returns home in the evening. Jolie said she would only attend school for two more days when tragedy struck.
As Buntha waited for her daughter to return in time for dinner, a relative called to inform her about the ferry incident. Jolie’s father immediately rushed to the scene on a motorbike and swam to look for his daughter but could not find her. Her body was recovered the next morning.
“When I found her body, I was very sorry. I loved her so much, I worked hard everyday just for her,” Buntha said at Kompong Phnom Knong pagoda, a few minutes from the ferry, where the bodies have been cremated.
Buntha told Jolie to study to secure a good job for her future. She said even working as a teacher would provide a stable income for the family.
“She likes sports and goes out to train even when it's raining. She likes good clothes. When I bought them for her, she wore them and walked like a model, like a superstar. She used her steps walking like a model, she liked to be beautiful. She wanted me to do her hair.”
On Sunday, police tape continued to surround the scene where the ferry wreckage is being kept. Villagers reported the vessel was too old to ferry people and was in a bad state of disrepair. A small shrine with food, beers and incense was seen near the shore as passengers went past.
Two families have pledged to donate bicycles retrieved from the tributary to those who want them. They said they serve as a sad reminder about the tragedy.
Commune chief, Touch, blamed the ferry owners for this tragedy as they allowed a 15-year-old to drive the boat. He added he has also informed the owners to fix the ferry as it was too old to use before the incident.
He said villagers have dug into the tributary for dirt in the past. This made it deeper and more difficult for the children to escape when the ferry capsized. He referred further questions about the investigation to the police but said all ferries have to be equipped with life jackets and loading capacity.
“We checked that boat, educated people about that boat, but at the place where the tragedy happened, people dug canals for dirt,” Touch said.
Lerk Dek district police chief, Am Thou, said that three people - the owners and the teenage driver of the ferry, have been taken into custody for further questioning. He added that the search was called off on Saturday after the last body of Meas Sovannareach, 13, was found.
Thou said of those in custody. "We detain them for questioning, we will also ask other witnesses for further information, but there is no charge yet."
Anger was high against the ferry owners, who let the 15-year-old drive the unsuitable boat.
Hoeung Kesar Marina, 13, was one of four survivors. She was cycling from school to her home and reached the ferry at about 6.30pm. She waited for the boat for about 10 minutes. As the adult driver of the ferry was tired, he let the 15-year-old take over the duties.
“He started from the shore slowly but when he reached the other shore, he increased the speed…water began to flow in and it tilted and sank,” Marina said.
“I was at the left side of the boat and near a handle. When the boat tilted, I jumped from the boat to the left side and water flowed into the right side. The boat didn't completely sink as its roof hit the bottom. I hung on the boat and my mother came, saw me and shouted to others to help me.”
One student, who could swim, swam to the shore and asked for help from other villagers, who brought an empty gasoline tank to rescue Marina.
She clung on to the boat for about 10 minutes before its roof broke and water began to reach her neck. Just in time, a student came to help her.
“I was scared. I thought of my friends but I could not help them. When they drowned, I don't know where they went because when the boat tilted, we were separated,” she said.
Marina lost two friends in the tragedy. Oudom Mony, 13, was a close friend. “He rode a bicycle to school with me everyday, we waited for each other,” she recalled.
Mony was also a good student and was cousin to Vy Chanbora, 12, who also survived the capsize.
“I am sad. I cried, I cried one day,” Chanbora said. “I don't know where [Mony] went, but maybe he has gone to heaven. He was a good student, helping people, hardworking and studied hard. I miss Mony.”
Chanbora was on her way home from the English classes she started only a few months ago. She added that the driver of the ferry was driving fast.
“He drove fast and when it reached the shore, about more than 10 meters, water began to flood in the front. It began to tilt and then sank,” Chanbora said. “I was a little scared. When it was sinking, I saw other students who were in chaos. Four people jumped in the water and they survived. The others are all dead.”
She recalled that on the ferry, there was a remorque. As the boat began to sink, she jumped on it and then into the water. “I threw away my bag and jumped into the water. I was floating, I couldn't swim, I didn't move my arms and feet, but I just floated. I was very tired,” Chanbora said.
When Chanbora reached shallow waters, a villager was able to pull her to the shore. He then borrowed a motorbike and sped back to the village to get more help.
Villagers have paid tribute to the children who lost their lives as they were simply trying to better their futures and secure better lives than their parents as farmers.