UTHAI SAWAN, Thailand (AP) — The little girl’s nickname was Plai Fon. In Thai, it means “the end of the rainy season” – a time of happiness.
And then in a horrific burst of violence, the happiness the chubby-cheeked four-year-old had symbolized for her adoring family was shattered. In its place is an unfathomable anguish over what happened to Plai Phon in a massacre that began at the Thai day care center and left 36 people dead, including the killer.
“When she would wake up, she would say, ‘I love you, mom, dad and brother,'” her 28-year-old mother, Tukta Wongsila, recalls her daughter’s usual morning routine. Tukta’s grief for her memory soon took her breath away.
At least 24 of the victims of Thursday’s gun and knife attack in northeastern Thailand were children, mostly preschoolers. A day after their short lives were snuffed out, their desperate families spent hours outside an administrative office near the day care center, waiting for their children’s bodies to be released.
Authorities had told the families to gather at the office so they could process compensation claims and meet the prime minister. But Tukta did not care about forms or formalities. She just wanted her little girl.
“I want to take my daughter back to have a ceremony as soon as I can,” she cried, tears streaming from her red eyes. “All that insurance money, I don’t want it. I just want it back for the funeral.”
Tukta and her family live in Uthai Sawan, a farming community in one of the country’s poorest regions, not far from the Laos border. Like many residents, they have long struggled to pay the bills.
Tukta and her husband work on the family’s rice farm during the growing season, earning about $2,600 a year if they’re lucky. They take on odd jobs on their days off to supplement their income. The couple and their children share a house with Tukta’s mother-in-law and father-in-law. Moving to a bigger city for better jobs was impossible because of their need to care for their young children and elderly parents.
Plai Fon, whose official name was Siriprapa Prasertsuk, was the older of Tukta’s two children, three years older than her brother. She was petite, with black hair and chubby cheeks that drew a bright smile. It was a smile that her grandmother, 62-year-old Bandal Pornsora, already missed.
“She was such a good girl,” Bandal said. “Such a good girl.”
On Thursday, Plai Fon went to the Young Child Development Center, where the walls are decorated with cheerful pictures of flowers and butterflies. It was early afternoon when a fired police officer burst in and began shooting and stabbing the children, who were huddled in mats and blankets taking their afternoon nap.
On Friday, as Tukta waited for her daughter’s body, she found herself thinking about the horror Plai Fon must have endured in her final moments.
“I want to see my daughter, see what she looked like,” he said. “I don’t know how much pain it caused her. (Even if she was sleeping, she must have felt the pain. I don’t know what took her life. I just want to see her face.”
Finally, hours later, he would go to a nearby Buddhist temple where loved ones of the dead had gathered to receive the bodies.
Families who came out of the temple said they saw huge cuts on their children. Many screamed. Some passed out.
Tukta entered the temple along with her husband and mother-in-law. When they got back outside, Tukta’s husband collapsed. He was taken to the hospital.
Tukta started crying and reached out for her father’s arms. Play Von’s eyes, he said, were wide open.
On the lawn behind the temple, the pair embraced, trying to provide comfort that would not come.
Tukta stuck to a framed photo of Plai Fon drawing with a yellow marker and staring into the camera with wide, dark eyes. The young mother’s fingers fidgeted on the edge of the frame as she leaned into her father, both wiping away tears.
Every night before bed, Tukta said, Play Von would say, “I want to sleep with mom.”
Tukta cried at the memory.
“These are the words I hear every night,” he said. “But I missed those words last night.”
Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.