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Nearly four months on, survivors of Pa Zi Gyi air strike still on the run from Myanmar military 

Junta forces continue to stalk the displaced survivors of an aerial bombing in Kanbalu Township that indiscriminately killed more than 150 people

U Soe remembers opening his eyes and being covered in blood and flesh that he realised were not his own.  

A blast from above had knocked the 54-year-old unconscious moments after arriving in Pa Zi Gyi on the afternoon of April 11. He had not even finished chewing the betel nut he had partaken in after reaching the village, which was miles from his own. 

He awoke surrounded by the bodies of slain women and children, detached limbs scattered throughout the field, smoke blurring the gory scene. 

U Soe checked his body for wounds and discovered he was unscathed: two pieces of metal shrapnel were lodged in the bag across his chest, miraculously failing to pierce his skin.  

He had travelled to Pa Zi Gyi, in Sagaing Region’s Kanbalu Township, with five friends to attend a reception and special lunch marking the opening of a local administrative office under the publicly mandated National Unity Government (NUG).

They gathered, along with some 200 others, to commemorate the event, which was targeted in the junta’s most lethal air strike in the period since the February 2021 coup. After three weeks of verification, the death toll was confirmed by the NUG and the local anti-junta People’s Defence Force (PDF) to be 155. Among the casualties were 42 people over age 65 and more than 30 children, 18 of whom were under two years old, an officer in the Kanbalu District PDF’s fourth battalion said. 

U Soe soon learned that all of his friends were among the dead.  

“I don’t know how I escaped. I was left sitting in the crowd,” he said. “When I regained consciousness, I saw everyone lying on the ground. I would have helped them up, but they were just lying there, not moving.”

The siege did not end after the bombing. When U Soe regained consciousness, he ran to Pa Zi Gyi’s monastery and washed off the blood that covered him, as the sound of gunfire penetrated the scene from junta helicopters hovering above. 

A 43-year-old Pa Zi Gyi resident who lost more than 10 family members in the aerial attack also recalled the shots that followed the explosion. 

“They opened fire at us from the cemetery,” she recalled. “The initial shots were a warning. Then they fired right at us, killing everyone.” 

Among those slain were her 50-year-old husband and 20-year-old son. The bodies of many of her deceased relatives, including her father-in-law and six-year-old niece, were “unidentifiable.”

She noted that before the April airstrike, Pa Zi Gyi had rarely seen clashes between resistance forces and the military. When junta troops had entered the village before, locals had fled before shots were fired.

Regime spokesperson Gen Zaw Min Tun has claimed that the April 11 attack was a legitimate military target, describing the scene as a meeting of “terrorist” PDF members. Yet after examining photos of nearly 60 victims and video footage of the site of the attack, international research and advocacy group Human Rights Watch concluded that the bomb dropped on Pa Zi Gyi was of the highly destructive and oxygen-fuelled thermobaric or vapour-cloud variety, and that it likely constituted a war crime.

“The scale of the blast and thermal damage to the building, as well as the profound nature of the burns and evident soft-tissue and crushing injuries suffered by the victims, are distinctive,” the rights group said. 

When it subsided, U Soe walked back to his own village, alone. Yet since April 11, he and the other survivors have been on the run, hunted by the military, who launched another air attack while rescue operations were underway at the bomb site. 

The village clinic, which was among the places destroyed by the fire in Pa Zi Gyi, after the village was again bombed one week after the lethal aerial attack (Supplied)

One week later, a column of around 100 junta troops crossed the Ayeyarwady River to the western bank, where Pa Zi Gyi is located. The next day—April 19—military aircraft bombed the abandoned village three times, burning down the entire southern section.

Meanwhile, the 100 ground troops raided and set fire to the surrounding communities until the end of the month, forcing residents of at least 10 villages to flee. 

Some 200 more soldiers stationed 10 miles west of Pa Zi Gyi advanced into the nearby forests in early May, stalking the community’s survivors in hiding.

“The battalion turned towards the area where displaced people from Pa Zi Gyi were taking shelter,” the Kanbalu District PDF officer told Myanmar Now. “We had to lead the displaced people away from the junta column and remain on the move.”

Resistance forces have been able to assist the civilians in evading the military, he explained, but remain unable to address the trauma caused by the sudden loss of more than 150 friends, neighbours and family members in what was a village of 800 people from 200 households.

“They start to cry when we mention the subject of the airstrike, even though we are just trying to gather more information,” the officer explained. “We don’t have the heart to ask them anymore. When we ask one person, everyone else starts crying. I don’t know what to do.”

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