Thai city is struggling with sudden loss of so many of its youth

UTHAI SAWAN, Thailand (AP) – Paweenuch Supholwong sits on her mother’s lap, fiddling with her pigtails as her mother tells the remarkable story of how the 3-year-old girl of a girl survived Thailand’s worst mass killing – the only child to emerge emerged unscathed from a daycare after a former police officer massacred preschoolers while they slept.

Two dozen children were among the 36 people shot and slashed to death in an attack that shattered the tranquility of the rural village of Uthai Sawan and robbed the small farming community of much of its youngest generation in an instant.

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 – apparently missing her because he thought she was already dead, her mother Panomplai Srithong said. Another child survived with serious injuries and remains hospitalized.

As society has come together to share his sorrow At the site of the attack and its Buddhist temples, people have also flocked to Paweenuch, tying dozens of white, yellow and red “soul cords” to her wrists in the hope that it will help her survive the horror spiritually as well, believing that when someone suffers such a tragedy, they lose a part of their soul.

“It’s to bring the spirit back into her body,” Panomplai explained, hugging her daughter warmly. “It is as if the spirit had left the body and it is called back.”

Uthai Sawan’s 6,500 people are spread over a dozen villages and live in homes scattered among sugarcane fields and rice paddies, which many of them cultivate. The township in northeastern Thailand was named after two smaller communities that were merged administratively, with Uthai meaning “rising sun” and Sawan meaning “heaven” or “happiness” in Sanskrit.

92 of the town’s pre-school children attended the public daycare, which is located next to the government’s administrative offices and opposite a sugar cane field. But flooding from seasonal monsoon rains, a mechanical failure that kept the center’s school bus from operating and other factors kept many away Thursday when the gunman struck.

The township has about 100 more preschool-aged children who either attend private daycare centers or stay at home, said Nanticha Panchom, the teacher who runs the daycare.

Nanticha, 43, was in the center’s kitchen making lunch for the children when she heard the first shot from outside – police say it was the gunman who shot a man and a child in front of the building. She heard someone else yelling to lock the front door and she ran out to get help.

“I never thought he would go inside,” she said as she looked over the driveway of the one-story building, now festooned with flowers and other tributes to those killed.

She wondered gloomily whether any children would ever return to the daycare and what the killing of the others would mean for the town of about 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 officer fired earlier this year on a drug charge involving methamphetamine. After leaving the daycare, he killed others along the way, and then his wife, child and himself at home, police said. An exact motive has not been determined, but he was due in court the next day to answer to the drug charge.

Like many others from the area, Tawatchi Wichaiwong came to the site from a neighboring village on Saturday with his wife, sister-in-law and three young nephews to place flowers at the memorial outside the daycare.

“We felt it across all the villages. I cried when I heard the news,” said the 47-year-old sugarcane farmer. “We all have children the same age, we all know each other.”

For a township where people are used to simple and peaceful everyday lives, 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 encountered anything like this. Even during the COVID crisis, we did not lose anyone,” she said. “This is something we all feel – there is no one who is not affected, we are all connected families.”

The 52-year-old works in the district’s office building next to the daycare and said she often stopped by to help and see the children, who called her “Grandma.”

Chuanpit was in the outdoor toilet when she heard the shots fired and ran out to see a man lying under a table suffering from a gunshot wound and rushed to his aid. He is recovering in a hospital, but a man who worked at the district office was killed, she said.

It is the loss of the children that she has the hardest time coming to terms with.

“It’s almost impossible for anyone here not to be affected by this — if the victim wasn’t your child, your grandchild, your family member, it’s someone you know,” she said.

“Our community has been so happy, it’s such a nice place, and the perpetrator has damaged his future. These children could have grown up to be anything, a member of parliament or even prime minister,” Chuanpit said.

Thailand’s government is providing financial compensation to the families to help them with funeral costs and other expenses — at least 310,000 baht, which is about $8,300 and for many amounts to several months’ wages, if not more, in one of the country’s poorest provinces.

The government also quickly dispatched a team of trauma experts from Bangkok who, on the day of the attack, contacted local mental health professionals to help victims.

Team leader Dutsadee Juengsiragulwit, a doctor at the government’s mental health department, said a small community like Uthai Sawan has the advantage that its size gives it a social cohesion that can be a source of strength in dealing with such a tragedy .

On the other hand, she said that since almost everyone is affected in some way, there are no “uninjured” people who can support others, so it is important for professionals to provide help quickly.

“If we do nothing, the psychological wounds or psychological trauma will be embedded in this generation,” she said.

Panomplai Srithong and her husband were at work at an electronics factory in Bangkok when they heard that their daughter’s daycare had been attacked and that no one had survived.

Like many from Uthai Sawan, they had moved to the capital to work and had sent money home 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 they drove home to Uthai Sawan as quickly as possible.

“The breathing was difficult, I can’t describe it, but when I found out that my child survived, I was relieved,” Panomplai said. “But I also wanted to know if she had any injuries, if there was any kind of damage.”

She said from what her daughter has told her, she had been sleeping under her blanket facing a wall and does not appear to have seen or heard the attack. Rescue workers carried her out of the building, blindfolded so she could not see the gruesome scene.

She asked her grandmother where her best friend was and she told her that her friend “passed away”.

“That’s when she found out her friend died,” Panomplai said. “This was the person sleeping next to her.”

Panomplai’s adult cousin was killed outside the daycare, and she attended a temple service Saturday for him and other victims.

“There’s both luck hidden in misfortune – I’m lucky my child is okay, but I lost my cousin,” she said.

“For other people, some lost an only child who was their hope,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief.

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Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this story.

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