By DAVID RISING Associated Press
UTHAI SAWAN, Thailand (AP) — Paweenuch Supholwong sits on her mother’s lap, twirling her pigtails as her mother tells the extraordinary story of how a 3-year-old girl survived Thailand’s worst mass murder — the only girl survived walked out of a daycare center unscathed after a former police officer massacred preschoolers while they were napping.
Two dozen children were among the 36 people shot and stabbed to death in an attack that shattered the serenity of rural Uthai Sawan township, robbing the small farming community of much of its younger generation in the blink of an eye.
Paweenuch was fast asleep and covered by a blanket on the floor when the attacker burst through the front door and killed 22 of her classmates who were lying around her; she apparently missed her because she thought she was already dead, said her mother, Panomplai Srithong. Another child survived with serious injuries and remains hospitalized.
As the community came together to share their grief at the scene of the attack and its Buddhist temples, people also flocked to Paweenuch, tying dozens of white, yellow and red “soul cords” to their wrists in hopes of help her. they also spiritually survive the horror, believing that when someone suffers such a tragedy, he loses part of his soul.
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“It’s to bring the spirit back into her body,” Panomlai explained, hugging her daughter warmly. “It is as if the spirit has left the body and they are calling it.”
The 6,500 inhabitants of Uthai Sawan are spread over a dozen villages, living in houses scattered among the sugarcane fields and rice paddies that many of them farm. The municipality in northeast Thailand was named after two smaller administratively merged communities, with Uthai meaning “rising sun” and Sawan meaning “heaven” or “happiness” in Sanskrit.
Ninety-two of the municipality’s preschool children attended the public nursery, which is next to the government’s administrative offices and across from a sugar cane field. But flooding from seasonal monsoon rains, a mechanical failure that prevented the downtown school bus from running and other factors kept many away Thursday when the attacker struck.
The township has about 100 more preschool children who go to private care centers or stay at home, said Nanticha Panchom, the teacher who runs the nursery.
Nanticha, 43, was in the center’s kitchen cooking the children’s lunch when she heard the first shot from outside: Police say it was the attacker who shot a man and a boy in front of the building. She heard someone else yell to close the front door and ran to get help.
“I never thought I would go in,” he said as he looked across the driveway to the one-story building now adorned with flowers and other tributes to those killed.
She wondered sadly if any children would ever return to the nursery, and what the death of the others will mean for the township of around 1,900 households.
“I can’t even imagine what this lost generation will mean to this community,” Nanticha said.
Police identified the shooter as Panya Kamrap, 34, a former police sergeant fired earlier this year on a drug charge involving methamphetamine. After leaving the daycare, he killed others on the way, and then his wife, his child and himself at home, police said. An exact motive has not been determined, but he was due in court the following day to answer the drug charge.
Like many in the area, Tawatchi Wichaiwong came to the scene Saturday from a neighboring town with his wife, sister-in-law and three young nephews to lay flowers at the memorial outside the nursery.
“We feel it in all the towns. I cried when I heard the news,” said the 47-year-old sugarcane farmer. “We all have children of similar ages, we all know each other.”
For a township where people are used to a simple and peaceful daily life, the attack came as a particular shock, said Chuanpit Geawthong, a senior local administrator who was born and raised in Uthai Sawan.
“We have never come across anything like this. Even during the COVID crisis, we didn’t lose anyone,” she said. “This is something that we all feel: there is no one who is not affected, we are all connected families.”
The 52-year-old works in the district office building next to the nursery and said she frequently dropped by to help and check on the children, who called her “grandma.”
Chuanpit was in the open-air toilet when he heard the gunshots and ran out to see a man lying under a table suffering from a gunshot wound and rushed to his aid. He is recovering at a hospital, but a man who worked at the district office has died, he said.
It is the loss of the children that is most difficult for him to accept.
“It is almost impossible for someone here not to be affected by this, if the victim was not your son, your grandson, your relative, it is someone you know,” he said.
“Our community has been so happy, it is such a lovely place and the perpetrator has damaged their future. These children could have grown up to be anything, members of parliament or even prime ministers,” Chuanpit said.
The Thai government is providing financial compensation to families to help with funeral costs and other expenses: at least 310,000 baht, which is around $8,300 and is equivalent to several months’ salary, if not more, in one of the the poorest provinces of the country.
The government also quickly dispatched a team of trauma experts from Bangkok who joined local mental health professionals on the day of the attack to help the victims.
Team leader Dutsadee Juengsiragulwit, a doctor with the government’s mental health department, said a small community like Uthai Sawan has the advantage that its size gives it social cohesion that can be a source of power in dealing with a tragedy like this. Type.
On the other hand, he said that since almost everyone is affected in some way, there are no “unscathed” people who can support others, so it is important that professionals provide help quickly.
“If we don’t do anything, psychological wounds or psychological trauma will be embedded in this generation,” he said.
Panomlai Srithong and her husband were working in an electronics factory in Bangkok when they learned that their daughter’s nursery had been attacked and that no one had survived.
Like many from Uthai Sawan, they had moved to the capital to work and send money back to their family, leaving 3-year-old Paweenuch in the care of his grandmother.
After an initial panic, they learned that their daughter had survived and drove to her home in Uthai Sawan as quickly as possible.
“Breathing was difficult, I can’t describe it, but when I found out that my son survived I was relieved,” said Panomplai. “But I also wanted to know if he had any injuries, if there was any collateral damage.”
He said that from what his daughter has told him, she had been asleep under her blanket turned against a wall and does not appear to have seen or heard the attack. Rescuers pulled her out of the building blindfolded so she wouldn’t see the horrifying scene.
She asked her grandmother where her best friend was and she told her that her friend “has passed away”.
“That’s when she found out her friend had died,” Panomplai said. “This was the person who was sleeping next to her.”
Panomplai’s adult cousin was killed outside the nursery and she attended a temple service on Saturday for him and other victims.
“There’s good luck hidden in bad luck: I’m lucky my son is okay, but I lost my cousin,” he said.
“For other people, some lost an only child who was their hope,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief.
Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this story.
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