Seven-year-old Su Yati Hlaing was killed on the spot in the air strike. / Photo supplied
Daw Moe Moe arrived at the monastic school at 12:50 p.m. on Sept. 16 to teach pupils in her kindergarten and Grade 1 classes, which were due to start at 1 p.m. She is a volunteer teacher at the monastic school in Let Yat Kone Village, which is a couple of kilometers away from Depayin town, Sagaing Region.
Soon after she arrived at the school she heard a male teacher shout that a helicopter was flying over the village. So she stood up quickly and shouted to the children, who were playing in the schoolyard, to come into the classroom to stay safe.
But, just as the children were running into the classroom, Daw Moe Moe heard a loud explosion. The blast was from a rocket fired by one of the two junta Mi-35 helicopters overhead.
It was the beginning of a horrific day at Let Yat Kone Village, in which air strikes and ground assaults by junta troops killed 11 children, some as young as 7. The regime’s massacre at the school shocked the nation and the world. The UN Secretary General on Wednesday strongly condemned the attack, calling the deaths an example of one of the “six grave violations” against children in times of armed conflict strongly condemned by the UN Security Council.
The intensity of the explosion left Daw Moe Moe unconscious for a few seconds, initially leaving her unable to tend to herself or the children. She also suffered temporary deafness for a while after the blast. The helicopter kept shooting at the school, which has eight classrooms. When she regained consciousness and took a deep breath, the children were screaming for help.
Though just a few minutes had passed since the beginning of the attack, Daw Moe Moe was aware that at least three children had been injured. She told the children to gather around her closely and to remain quiet.
“My knees were shaking [out of fear] and I was choked with the smoke. I thought to myself, ‘I am already dead.’ I was deranged for a while until I realized I had to save the children,” the 46-year-old teacher told The Irrawaddy.
After a dozen bursts of shooting from the helicopter, the school was full of smoke, suffocating her and the children. So she hurried them all outside and headed to a big tamarind tree, under which they hid from the shooting. She urged the students to say their prayers and Buddhist mantras.
Then a soldier suddenly appeared in front of them and shouted at them to come out from hiding, or he would kill them all, and aimed his weapon at her and the children.
The soldier took them all to the staircase of the adjacent monastery, where they all had to sit down and keep their faces down. Daw Moe Moe heard an officer shout angrily to a soldier to kill all the children and teachers.
In the stairway, the teacher saw that a medic among the military troops was applying first aid to some of the dozens of injured children. One child was lying in a pool of blood as his lower torso was badly hit. She remembered it was Phone Tay Za—one of her students from Grade 1.
Then she saw the boy’s mother rush into the monastery, asking the military officer to allow her to see her 7-year-old child. When she was allowed to do so, the mother hugged her son. Soon after, Phone Tay Za died.
The bereaved mother begged the soldier to give her the dead body of her child, but the soldiers snatched the body and put it into a big woven rice bag, as they did with the bodies of other dead children.
“She cried hysterically and collapsed. I wanted to comfort her. But the soldiers were aiming at us and warned they would shoot us if we moved. I was so frustrated and angry,” Daw Moe Moe said.
The teacher also lost another of her students, Su Yati Hlaing, on the day. The Grade 1 girl was killed on the spot in the air strike.
Daw Soe Soe, the girl’s grandmother, was at home when the junta launched the air strike. The 7-year-old girl lived with her grandparents, as her father and mother are migrant workers in Thailand. When Daw Soe Soe and her husband learned about the air strike at the school, neither dared to go out to see if their granddaughter was safe amid the explosions. Instead, they just had to say prayers at home, hearing the massive blasts.
But at 2 p.m., the elderly couple was informed that their younger granddaughter was already dead. Daw Soe Soe then informed her daughter and son-in-law of Su Yati Hlaing’s death.
“We learned of the attack at 2 p.m., so we were worried and came back to the dormitory at 5 p.m., then we both fell down on the floor as we heard that my daughter was already dead. My wife and I just hug each other and cry all day,” said Ko Zaw Zaw, the father of Su Yati Hlaing.
Ko Zaw Zaw and his wife went to Thailand as migrant workers five years ago, and have not been able to return for even a single visit to their village, which they left when their younger daughter was 2-and-a-half years old.
Their dream was to live with their daughters after making enough money to afford a better life.
“But now our dream has gone. I have nothing to compare these bastards to,” he said of the Myanmar military forces. “They are not even worth comparing to dogs. It is better if they totally disappeared from this planet. We want justice for what they have done,” the father told The Irrawaddy.
‘I will never forgive them’
Let Yat Kone is a large village with over 400 houses, and home to at least 3,000 residents. Following the massacre, the junta’s Myawady TV said in a newscast on Saturday that the attack on the village happened when the military conducted checks in response to a tip-off that anti-regime Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and People’s Defence Force (PDF) groups were planning to transport weapons via Let Yat Kone.
It also claimed the village monastery was a hideout for supporters of the ousted National League for Democracy and PDF members who allegedly extort money from locals and travelers.
“Civilians were killed as the KIA and PDFs used them as human shields in the exchange of fire,” it said.
However, village residents like U Cho said there was no such camp or PDF base in the village, though a few PDF members guarded the monastic school. He said the number of PDF members in the village rarely exceeded a dozen.
When the junta launched airstrikes and ground assaults on Sept. 16, the villagers had to run for their lives. U Cho jumped on his motorcycle, taking his spouse with him, and headed to another village to the south. To date, half of the villagers have yet to return. During the attacks, seven villagers and three PDF members were killed.
“Indeed, their intention was to destroy the whole village on that day. But, since there were not as many PDFs as they expected, they killed the children. They didn’t destroy the village as they had planned. But the lives of our children have been sacrificed,” U Cho said.
According to the latest updates available on Wednesday, the incident also left 11 other children and two teachers injured, but they were left in the village. The junta troops took 15 people—seven children, five teachers and three villagers—to nearby Ye-U Township. The three villagers were released on Sept. 18. The fate of the others is unknown.
The regime soldiers took the bodies of the killed students to Ye-U overnight and cremated their bodies there the following day.
The next day, a military officer contacted the parents of the dead children telling them to collect their ashes in Ye-U.
Daw Soe Soe and the other parents and guardians refused to take the ashes of the children, as they had not even been allowed to see the children’s bodies.
“My heart was already broken. How can I get any consolation from ashes? I will never forgive them as I have lost my granddaughter. I just pray their children don’t encounter a similar fate [as my granddaughter],” Daw Soe Soe said.
The civilian National Unity Government’s Ministry of Women, Youth and Children’s Affairs, Ministry of Education, and Ministry of Human Rights condemned the targeted attack and called it an inhumane and brutal war crime.
Ja Htoi Pan, the NUG’s deputy education minister, told The Irrawaddy that the atrocities the regime soldiers committed at the school in Let Yat Kone reflected Myanmar junta soldiers’ lack of humanity, adding that the attack was a contravention of human rights.
“My deep condolences go to the people who were killed and injured, and to the children who have experienced such an atrocity, and to all the villagers who have been traumatized by this Let Yat Kone incident. The military must be punished for what they have done,” she said.
Recalling that horrifying day at the school, teacher Daw Moe Moe admitted that when the attack began she was too overwhelmed to think about her 11-year-old son, a third-grader at the school.
Only when she saw her dying student Phone Tay Za did she suddenly remember her son and wonder where he was. A few minutes later, a soldier brought in two children, saying, “Here are the boys who crossed over the fence and tried to run away!” One of the boys was her son.
He ran to her and sat beside her.
“I felt such relief at that moment,” Daw Moe Moe said.
Then they saw the soldiers ordering the monks to read aloud Buddhist texts, prayers and mantras in the Pali language to prove that they were real monks. All of the monks were able to read the texts sufficiently well that the soldiers were satisfied.
Soldiers then went around the village rounding up people they were suspicious of and bringing them to the monastery, beating them. By around 3 p.m., they had brought in at least 100 people, joining the approximately 250 students, teachers and monks who were already there. No one was allowed to leave.
The troops finally headed to Ye-U at 4:30 p.m., taking 15 detainees with them and leaving Let Yat Kone in an eerie silence, except for the intermittent cries of children traumatized by the horrible scenes they had witnessed.
Daw Moe Moe said the events of Sept. 16 had scarred her heart.
“I’m devastated by the regime’s horrific actions against our innocent children. For the villagers, nothing can ever make up for their loss.”
Editor’s note: Some names in this story have been changed for security reasons.