When the deafening roar of airstrikes drowns out the sound of school bells

As world leaders descended on London over the weekend to pay their final respects to Queen Elizabeth II ahead of her state funeral on Monday, people in Myanmar—a country more than 5,000 miles away—were mourning deaths that went unnoticed by those same leaders.

Last Friday, the junta that seized power in the former British colony launched airstrikes and a ground assault on the village of Letyetkone, in the country’s north-central Sagaing Region. In that village was a school located inside a Buddhist monastery. Predictably, many civilians died in the attack—at least 13 by the latest count, including seven children.

Photos taken by a local to document the aftermath of this latest atrocity went viral on social media over the weekend. Even Myanmar Facebook users long accustomed to seeing evidence of such carnage were appalled. One particular image struck a chord with many: a grade-one mathematics textbook with its edges torn and stained with blood. The owner, believed to be a 7-year-old boy named Hpone Tayza, was one of six students at the school killed in the Friday afternoon massacre at Letyetkone.

This bloodied textbook was among the items left behind after junta troops attacked the school in Letyetkone on September 16

It was not until the start of the following week that the rest of the world began to take notice. On Monday, the UN’s agency for children, UNICEF, released a statement condemning the incident, and a day later, the charity Save the Children followed suit. Neither, however, acknowledged the fact that it was Myanmar’s military that was responsible for the indiscriminate killing of civilians, including children. For many in the country, this was just further evidence of the failure of the international community to recognise Myanmar’s plight as it struggles to free itself from a brutal dictatorship.

‘Please kill me’

A teacher who lived through the junta’s assault on Letyetkone told Myanmar Now that it began with the ominous sound of military jets flying directly over the monastery where the village school was located.

“We heard the aircraft flying over our heads, and then it started. There was also heavy artillery, followed by machine guns. They fired non-stop for an hour,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

The school, which had nearly 250 students from Letkyetkone and other nearby villages, was operated by the local community; as in many other parts of the country, local parents refused to send their children to schools run by the junta’s administrators. The teacher, who was one of around a dozen volunteers at the school, had three of her own children studying there.

The exterior of the Letyetkone school after the September 16 attack

She said that when the airstrikes began at around 1pm, all of the school’s students were in their classrooms. Some were in the main school building, while others were in makeshift classrooms in the monastery compound.

The sound of the jets triggered a panic, and as the children scattered or tried to hide, three huge explosions—from bombs dropped by the jets—shook the school. Dozens of children who didn’t get away or find shelter were injured by this initial attack and the subsequent gunfire. The bodies of some of those who were killed were torn apart, according to the teacher.

He kept screaming, ‘I can’t take it anymore. Please kill me,’

Minutes after the shooting stopped, two helicopters arrived with around 80 soldiers. Half of them entered the monastery compound, where they ordered everyone who was hiding to come out into the open.

“They shouted at us to come out with our heads down. They said they would kill us if we looked up, so we kept our heads down the whole time,” said the teacher.

Photos taken after the September 16 attack on Letyetkone show extensive damage to the village school

It was from two of her own children that she learned that a number of their classmates had been badly injured. One of them was her nephew, Hpone Tayza. The boy was crying loudly from his classroom and calling out for his mother, who begged the soldiers to let her attend to her son.

When her sister came out of the classroom holding her son, the teacher saw that the whole lower part of his body and one of his hands had been blown off.

“He was in agony and begging his mother to kill him. He kept screaming, ‘I can’t take it anymore. Please kill me,’” the teacher said, recounting the final moments of her nephew’s life.

After he bled to death from his wounds, the boy’s mother again pleaded with the soldiers, this time to be allowed to keep his body so that she could cremate his remains herself. But the soldiers denied this last, desperate request.

“They said they needed the body for ‘confirmation.’ I don’t know what they needed to confirm. We saw the boy die right in front of our own eyes,” said the teacher.

Disposing of the dead

For the next three hours, the junta troops held the teachers and students captive as they removed as much evidence as they could of their crimes. Everyone was ordered to gather in one place and turn away as the soldiers went about their business. Injured children were threatened if they cried out in pain.

Although terrified, the teacher who spoke to Myanmar Now said that she couldn’t resist trying to catch a glimpse of the soldiers assigned to the gruesome task of disposing of dead children. When she sneaked a furtive peak in their direction, she saw that they were picking up body parts and putting them into bags.

When this job was done, the soldiers were finally ready to leave.  They took two teachers and around 20 children, all suffering from serious injuries, with them. Six other villagers were also forced to go, according to the teacher—two as drivers and four more as hostages.

Junta troops spent three hours cleaning up after their attack on Letyetkone, but still left behind many signs of the carnage

At least two of the children died by the time they reached a traditional medicine hospital in Ye-U, a town about 10km north of Letyetkone, according to another villager. Citing a social welfare group based in Ye-U, the villager said that the hospital doesn’t actually function as such, but is used by the military as a place to station its troops in the town.

While the military has done its best to conceal the number of people it killed in Letyetkone last Friday, locals say they discovered even more bodies in and around the village after the soldiers left. The victims include a 13-year-old boy found dead near the Muu River, three men with gunshot wounds who were found floating in the river a day after the attack, and a woman killed while herding her cows.

“We found the woman in the woods. They even took her earrings. It was so brutal—pieces of her brain were coming out of the front of her head,” said a local man.

One of the hostages taken by the soldiers when they left Letyetkone—a 33-year-old man named Aung Saw Htwe—was also killed, according to villagers who have since fled the area. His body was dumped on the road to Ye-U, they said.

Loss of innocents

Myanmar’s junta rarely responds to accusations of atrocities, which it has committed on an almost daily basis since seizing power last year. On Saturday, however, a regime mouthpiece reported that the military had sent troops to “inspect” Letyetkone after receiving information that members of armed resistance groups were hiding in the local monastery. According to the junta-run Myanma Alinn newspaper, these groups opened fire as soon as the regime forces arrived in the village, resulting in multiple civilian casualties.

On Tuesday, as outrage over the incident continued to grow, military spokesperson Zaw Min Tun again blamed resistance forces for the bloodshed. He deflected criticism of the military’s decision to carry out airstrikes on a school by accusing its opponents of using locals as human shields, saying that they had herded civilians into the monastery ahead of the attack. He also claimed that after the resistance members fled, soldiers took two children with severe injuries to a military hospital. He even suggested that the junta’s enemies were fabricating details about the incident to discredit the regime ahead of this week’s meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York.

For its part, the shadow National Unity Government—which seeks recognition as Myanmar’s legitimate representative on the world stage—released a statement on Sunday strongly condemning the military’s “targeted attacks on the schools [as] an inhuman and brutal war crime” and a gross violation of children’s right to education.

The interior of the Letyetkone school after it came under attack by regime forces on September 16

As mourners queued in London for the queen’s funeral, many in Myanmar were left to grieve the loss of more innocents in the country’s long war against military oppression. While the families of those killed in Letyetkone last Friday no doubt feel the greatest pain, there are few in Myanmar who have not been touched by the agony of seeing lives cut short by a cruel and brutal regime.

It is small comfort, then, that the killing in Letyetkone managed to make international headlines, after more than a year and half with barely any attention paid to Myanmar’s struggle for justice. Like many others in the country, the teacher who spoke to Myanmar Now said she wished the world would see this conflict for what it is and help restore hope for millions who are increasingly feeling forgotten.

“What the whole country, including our village, wants is democracy and an end to dictatorship. If we can achieve that, we won’t need any other support or anything else,” she said.

Reporting by Khin Yi Yi Zaw and Thura Maung. Writing by Tin Htet Paing.

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