Originally built in 1963 with Japanese aid, the Chroy Changvar Bridge, also known as the Cambodian-Japanese Friendship Bridge, collapsed in 1972 due to an attack by Viet Cong suicide bombers. It remained closed until it reopened in February 1994. The bridge later underwent renovations to ease traffic flow and on April 3, it was officially reopened again. But the 709-metre bridge that crosses the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh has a dark side to it, too. It’s the site of suicides, where people take their own lives by jumping off the bridge. Meanwhile, one fisherman, who lives near the bridge, has been trying to prevent these suicides – often risking his own life. Taing Rinith meets this unsung hero.
It was a windy evening in 2005. Yi Yuu, a Cham fisherman, was pulling his net back to his boat, which was about a few hundred metres from Chroy Changvar Bridge. Like any other day, he was trying to catch a lot of fish from the river, but he also frequently kept his eyes on the bridge, for a certain reason.
As dusk approached, Yuu saw a young man and woman walking slowly on the pedestrian path of the bridge. Yuu suddenly stopped his work and turned his small boat toward the bridge. He knew that they wanted to commit suicide by jumping off the bridge. Usually, there was a police guard whose duty was to prevent that on the bridge, but he was not there that day. Yuu realised that it was now his job to prevent their deaths.
At first, he tried to talk them out of taking their own lives by asking them to think about their future and families. The couple did not say anything and walked until they reach the other side. Yuu thought he had succeeded but he was wrong. They quickly rushed back and jumped into the Tonle Sap River.
Without any delay, Yuu paddled his boat to the spot where the couple jumped. He dived into the cold water to save them but he could only grab the woman and brought her to his boat. The man drowned, and his body had already sunk to the bottom of the river. Yuu asked his wife, Sos Nop, who was also in the boat with him to restrain the woman who wanted to roll into the water and die with her lover.
Later, Yuu dived into the river again to try to retrieve the man’s body. His equipment was only a long clear plastic pipe, which he used to breathe with his mouth. He had to close his eyes all the time and used his arms to search the muddy floor of the river for the body. By luck, he managed to locate it and bring it to shore. While the man’s family was crying over his dead body, Yuu blamed himself for not being able to save him.
“The two of them loved each other deeply but their families did not allow them to get married so they decided to drown themselves in the river with their hands tied together,” Yuu, now 58, tells Good Times2 in an interview at his small house at Chong Koh Cham community.
“I could see that the man was trying to raise the woman up from water so that she would not die with him, and that was when the rope that tied their hands snapped.”
Although almost 15 years have passed, Yuu still remembers the tragic event. However, the woman was just one of the many people Yuu has saved and her lover’s body was also one of the many that he has retrieved by diving underwater.
Born in a Muslim community in Tanoung district of Kampong Cham, Yuu has lived near Chroy Changvar and earned his livelihood by fishing in that part of the Tonle Sap River.
For almost 40 years, while fishing in his boat, he has attempted to save people who try to end their lives by jumping off Chroy Changvar Bridge.
“Those people must have experienced great distress or had some problems with their families or lovers. But that’s not an excuse to take their own lives,” says Yuu.
“I do not know their stories or who they actually were, but I just want them to live.
“Suicide is a very serious sin, unacceptable by Allah. In fact, they are not acceptable in all religions.”
Yuu says sometimes suicidal people, whom he has saved, said horrible things to him because he had prevented their deaths. At times, these bad remarks have made him lose his cool.
“Once there was a guy who insisted on getting back into the water after I saved him,” Yuu recalls. “I slapped him on the face and yelled, ‘Why do you want to die? Do you know how many people who want to live but have to die?’”
“He did not reply and walked off. I should not have hit him, but at least I saved him.”
In 1974, Yuu’s uncle, also a fisherman, tried to save a police officer who fell in the Tonle Sap. He knew that if he got in the water, the drowning person would also drag him into the river. So he handed him his boat paddle so that that the cop could grab it and drag himself out of the water. However, the people who saw that accused him of trying to push the victim into the river. Since that time, Yuu has committed himself to saving those who try to end their lives by jumping off the Chroy Changvar Bridge.
Yuu also has a reputation for recovering drowned bodies, often at the bottom of the river, for the families to give them a decent funeral. Most of the time, he risks his life doing it.
“If I could not save them, at least I could bring their bodies to their families,” Yuu says.
“We fishermen are expert divers, but the others are too afraid of the dead bodies. For me, I am not afraid because I always tell myself that it is only a dead body. We all die.
“The families usually gave me money for my help, but I do not want the money; I want them to live.”
Sos Nop, Yuu’s wife, says when she first knew what her husband was doing, she was too afraid to even be near him. But she later got used to it and now she is proud of him.
“He never expects any reward for his work,” Nop says. “He is a very kind man although he does not know how to speak gently to people.”
Yuu is still helping drowning people with his fishing boat, but recently, he became too old to dive for the bodies. Fortunately, his son Yi Maliki, also a fisherman, is good enough to continue his father’s legacy. Maliki has so far saved five suicidal people and recovered tens of drowned bodies.
“I am very proud of my father for what he has done,” says the 25-year-old. “I want to train my son to continue this legacy too.”
Looking at the newly repaired and reopened Chroy Changvar Bridge, Yuu says he does not know for how long he could go out in his boat and save the people; therefore, he has a message for them.
“You have no idea how suffering is from a drowning death,” Yuu says.
“You should think about your future and your families before coming here to kill yourself. Please remember, I am not always here to save you or recover your bodies.”