In Myanmar, Grief and anger after an attack on a school

It was noon, and the children were playing outside of school, trying to enjoy their last minutes of fun before lessons began. Suddenly, there was the roar of helicopters overhead.

Bhone Tayza, 7, looking up. The cousin shouted for him to run away, and the two hid in a hole in the tamarind tree. Then, Bhone Tayza remembered that she had left her bag in the classroom and ran to get it. Soldiers started firing rockets.

When the boy’s mother heard the school was attacked, she said she rushed to the scene, her account of her son’s final moments largely corroborated by a teacher there. She begged the soldiers to let her in. “Mom,” she heard a familiar voice say. A soldier allows her to enter the building, where she sees her only son in a pool of blood.

“I just want to die,” she said he told her, in a weak voice. “I can’t stand the pain.”

He died soon after, and so did 10 of his classmates.

More than 13,000 children have been killed in the bloodshed that began when the Myanmar army Power is confiscated early last year. But the September 16 attack on the school, in the village of Let Yet Kone in central Myanmar, has killed more of them than in any episode since the coup. Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, condemn the attack.

For more than a year, the army fought the resistance, many of whom were ordinary people who took up arms and formed groups known as People’s Defense Force. Every day brings news of more deaths, mostly civilians.

But the images emerging from the school attack – dead children in cloth covers, school bags abandoned next to bloodstains, small sandals littered with rubble – are still shocking enough.

For many in Myanmar, the attack increased their resentment of the military and further distressed them at the world’s failure to intervene.

“I want to ask the international community: How many children had to be killed in our country before? Min Aung Hlaing can be overthrown? Bhone Tayza’s mother said, referring to Myanmar’s commander-in-chief. She declined to be named for fear of retribution.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in MyanmarTom Andrews told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva this week that the situation has “went from bad to worse, to terrible for countless innocent people in Myanmar.”

In a phone interview on Friday, Mr Andrews said the attack on the school was “another indescribable horror that has been systematically inflicted on the people of Myanmar”.

“This is a war crime,” he said.

On Tuesday, army spokesman Zaw Min Tun said the village of Let Yet Kone harbored members of the People’s Self-Defense Forces and their allies from the Kachin Independence Army, a rebel group ethnicity. They used villagers as human shields,” he told a news conference.

He played a video of two teachers in the school who were arrested after the strike. They say members of the People’s Self-Defense Force attacked the soldiers, then rushed into the school to hide, forcing the soldiers to open fire in self-defense.

Mr Zaw Min Tun said the army “even saved two children’s lives” by taking them to the hospital by helicopter. He denounced “the fraudulent media reporting that we shoot children.”

The villagers dispute his account. They said that no one from the People’s Self-Defense Force was in the school, and that the two teachers gave their statements under duress.

One resident said he saw four Russian-made helicopters – two Mi-35Ms and two Mil Mi-17s – carrying out the attack, firing rockets and dropping soldiers on the school grounds.

Let Yet Kone Village is in the Sagaing region, a stronghold of the resistance. For months, the military has been trying to regain control of the area.

The roads are controlled by the People’s Self-Defense Forces, so the army relies heavily on air bombardment. Military commanders have fled their offices in the area. Almost daily, there are battles between the army and the rebels, as well as urban guerrilla bombing.

The school is located in a monastery, which was established in secret after the coup d’etat. The teachers in the village, like thousands of others across Myanmar, have been on strike since the coup, refusing to work in government schools as part of the nationwide protest movement.

But many have continued to teach in privately established schools, such as the one at Let Yet Kone, or founded by Government of National Unity, a shadow government in exile. Authorities have outlawed such schools, arresting teachers as well as support staff, such as textbook delivery drivers.

Volunteer teachers at Let Yet Kone School, where 249 elementary and middle school students attend, have taught them how to hide in the event of an air strike. That’s why most of them escaped – with the exception of some of the youngest, who struggled to remember what to do, one teacher said.

The teacher, who also declined to be named for fear of retribution, said a rocket had landed near where she was hiding with some children. One child was killed, she said, with the force of the impact being so strong that its scalp popped open and stuck to the wall.

Soldiers burst into the school, asking everyone to come out of hiding. According to the teacher, they told the frightened staff and students that then said that the resistance, not the army, had started the battle. The teacher said that she saw children without limbs, many of them bleeding profusely.

Su Yati Hlaing, 7, did not survive. Her parents worked in Thailand for 5 years to earn extra money for her and her 10-year-old sister.

Su Yati Hlaing’s father, who did not want to be named, said: “But now our family can never be complete,” said. “I will never forgive the military.”

After the attack, soldiers took the body to another town and cremated it, according to villagers. The bereaved parents have not yet received their child’s ashes.

A week after the attack, most of the 3,000 villagers in Let Yet Kone had evacuated to other nearby villages, such as more than a million others lost their homes in the conflict.

Many villagers are now living in grief and fear, still trying to cope with the trauma of the attack.

“I still cry when noon comes,” said the teacher.

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