Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sorrow With No Hope

Soldiers unload caskets as people in the background identify bodies.

Yesterday was without a doubt the saddest day in our 10 years of living in Cambodia. Monday night at the conclusion of the annual Water Festival there was a deadly stampede on a bridge which killed close to 400 people and injured nearly twice that many. I won't take the time or the space here to retell the story of what happened, because anyone reading this blog has likely already read or seen the story on any number of international news outlets. Thus far I have not seen anything in the news that was at odds with what we are hearing locally. But rather than retell the story, I want to just share some things that are on my heart.
The mood here in Phnom Penh was extremely dark and gloomy on the day after the tragedy as one may well imagine. Lots of phone calls and text messages were going around as people called one another checking on loved ones and friends. As I made some phone calls and visits to check on our church people, I was very encouraged to see how many of them had already been checking on each other. A couple of months ago when I began our Sunday night sermon series in the book of Philippians, I preached on the special relationship that we should have with our brothers and sisters in the Lord. I like Warren Wiersbe's outline for Philippians 1:1-11. He shows three attitudes which the Apostle Paul had towards his fellow believers in Philippi: I have you in my mind (vs 1-6), I have you in my heart (vs 7-8), and I have you in my prayers (vs 9-11). I definitely saw that spirit lived out yesterday among our church people. Thankfully, no one from our church or any of their relatives were killed on Monday. One man who has been attending our church recently but is not yet saved had a brother who was injured.

The church people about whom I was most concerned was a group of people in a neighborhood that is very close to the bridge where the accident occurred. They are probably less than a 5 minute walk from the bridge. There are currently people coming to our church from 5 different houses in just this one small alley. Several of the people in this neighborhood have gotten saved recently, and several of them are not yet saved but getting close. I was relieved to find all of them safe and sound yesterday. A teenaged boy named Sombat, whom I have asked prayer for several times in our email updates, was on the island with his aunt and uncle on Monday night. They crossed the bridge, and just a few minutes later saw ambulances racing by towards the bridge. It seems as if they got across just moments before the stampede. Another young lady who has been coming for the past several week was still on the island when the stampede occurred and ended up being stuck there into the middle of the night with thousands of other people. We are so thankful to God for watching over these people.

Although I was relieved that all of our people were okay and encouraged to see everybody checking on each other, it was still an intensely sad day in most respects. When I saw some of the footage taken immediately after the stampede, my heart felt like it was being crushed. The bodies, both living and dead, were intertwined and locked together almost inextricably. To see people crushed together, many limp in death or having lost consciousness, others wide-eyed with terror, and others reaching and calling for someone to help them has been indelibly seared into my memory. I cannot even type these words without crying. The rescue workers and bystanders had to remove the people one layer at a time while the people further back waited for help. Many died before they could be rescued.

A truckload of soon-to-be used caskets
I had heard throughout the night that Calmette Hospital was closed to all but rescue workers and family. I needed to get into Calmette yesterday on business totally unrelated to the stampede victims. This is the hospital where I am daily visiting one of our ladies who is dying of AIDS as well as witnessing to several other people. Also, I had another lady in our church lined up to donate blood for the AIDS patient, but was afraid she would not be able to get in. When I went to check on the possibility of getting in the hospital, I was totally shocked at the operation that was going on just inside the hospital's back gate. As I arrived, there was a long convoy of army trucks just arriving. I could see right away that it was not true that the hospital was closed to the public, and how could it be? The public's assistance was required in identifying the 140 bodies that had been brought to Calmette. I parked my moto outside and went in to a very grim scene. Bodies were lying on mats, some in bodybags, others just covered with a sheet. A throng of people were gathered around, and occasionally someone would make their way through the crowd and begin to lift up the sheets one at a time, obviously looking for their friend or loved one. Several little groups of people were huddled around various bodies or coffins crying. Two men removed the sheet from another man, then told the doctor, "Yeah...that's him...his mom will be here in a couple of minutes." The military trucks were being sent out to various provinces to deliver the dead back to their homes. Sometimes a truck would drive away with just one coffin, and a couple of people in the back. Other trucks had numerous coffins and people in the back, which presumably was multiple deaths from the same village. While bodies were being identified and trucks were driving away, there were more trucks lined up and more empty coffins waiting. Besides Calmette hospital, there were several other hospitals where the same scene was unfolding.

A group of people transports a casket to a waiting truck
In today's newspaper I have read that some of the city's residents have begun calling the bridge "the Bridge of Ghosts". Yesterday about 400 Buddhist monks went to the bridge and conducted a ceremony for the deceased.  All over town, people are lighting incense and offering prayers for the dead. (On a side note: Last night I received a call from a woman who was led to Christ recently by one of our church members. She wanted to know what a Christian is supposed to do to pity the dead or respect the dead. She said: "In the past I would have done the various Buddhist ceremonies, but I know that is not right now that I am a Christian...but I'm just wondering what I CAN do." I thought that was an interesting comment from a new believer, especially considering that she doesn't even come to church regularly.)  I knew it wouldn't take long in this superstitious society for someone to suggest tearing down the bridge. Sure enough, in today's newspapers people are saying things like, "It's a bad bridge" and "This bridge should be knocked down" and "I don't even want to say it's name anymore".

There is nothing quite as sad as seeing people experience tremendous loss without hope. I read today in the paper about one 18 year-old girl who was killed in the stampede and her mother and father both jumped in the river and tried to commit suicide upon hearing of her death. Another man was at the hospital watching over his 15 year-old nephew's body. He had placed a traditional magic cloth over the boy's face and a bowl of rice porridge at his feet, and said, "I am hoping my nephew's dead soul is not going to become a hungry ghost." These past 36 hours have been a real-time object lesson of I Thessalonians 4:13 about people who are in the midst of sorrow but have no hope. What a weighty responsibility is ours as we preach the Gospel in this needy land!

Note: As many of you know, we have been giving away books this month on the Missionary Memo, and the way to get in the drawing was to leave a comment. Although there are still two drawings left this month, comments left on this post will not be entered in the drawing. I am not trying to discourage comments, but simply trying to be respectful by not mixing a contest with such a serious topic as this tragedy.


  1. I have tears in my eyes as I read this post. My heart has been heavy since I heard the news of this tragedy. We are praying for you and your church people to have oportunity to help others that are hurting. We are praying for the people of Cambodia!

  2. I will be praying for you, your family, your people & Cambodia.

  3. Brother Stephen,
    Thank you for sharing this post. I imagine it was difficult but very necessary to right. We are praying for you and the God will use you in this special time. We are glad that you are there.

  4. This is such a tragedy, but no doubt God will use it to draw people to Himself. Thanks for your work for the Lord during this tragedy. We are praying for you. Eric & Vivian Rader - Lighthouse Baptist Church

  5. Dear Bro. Benefield,

    What a heartbreaking tragedy and how sad to see these dear people without hope. I will be praying for you and your church people, esepcially that the Lord would open many doors for the gospel during this very dark and sad time in Cambodia. God bless you and your family as you serve Him there. Thank you for being a light in Cambodia. May the Lord comfort and strengthen you all. Thank you for sharing-may it spur each reader on to pray more for your ministry.

    In Christ,

    Melanie R.,
    Shasta Baptist Church,
    Redding, CA

  6. We've been praying for you to have opportunites to minister.
    Those pictures affected me the same way. The fear in the eyes is heartbreaking.

  7. So heartbreaking we will be praying you and your church members!

  8. Thank you for helping me think of how close tragedy strike and when I get lazy to servie the Lord to share with every one who needs to hear the gospel. I know in my mind as you wrote this blog the hurt you and your family have for the people. Bro Wilson