The Thai city is struggling with the sudden loss of so many of its young people

UTHAI SAWAN, Thailand (AP) — Paweenuch Supholwong sits on her mother’s lap and fidgets with her pigtails as her mother tells the remarkable story of how the 3-year-old girl survived Thailand’s worst mass killing — the only child to emerge unharmed by a daycare after an ex-cop massacred preschoolers while they slept.

Two dozen children were among 36 people shot and killed in an attack that shattered the tranquility of the rural township of Uthai Sawan, robbing the small farming community of much of its younger generation in the blink of an eye.

Paweenuch was fast asleep and covered by a blanket on the floor when the gunman burst through the front door and killed 22 of her classmates who were lying around her – apparently missing her because she thought she was already dead, her mother Panomlai Srithong said. Another child survived with serious injuries and remains in hospital.

As the community has come together to share his grief at the scene of the attack and at its Buddhist temples, people have also flocked to Paweenuch, tying dozens of white, yellow and red “soul strings” to her wrists in the hope it will help her survive the horror spiritually as well, believing that when one suffers such a tragedy, one loses part of one’s soul.

“It’s to bring the spirit back into her body,” Panoblai explained, holding her daughter warmly. “It is as if the spirit had left the body and was being called back.”

The 6,500 people of Uthai Sawan are spread over a dozen villages, living in houses scattered among the sugar cane fields and rice paddies that many of them cultivate. The municipality in northeastern Thailand was named for two smaller communities that were administratively merged, with Uthai meaning “rising sun” and Sawan meaning “heaven” or “happiness” in Sanskrit.

Ninety-two of the municipality’s pre-school children went to the public day care center, which is located next to the government’s administrative offices and across from a sugarcane field. But flooding from seasonal monsoon rains, a mechanical breakdown that prevented the center’s school bus from operating and other factors kept many away on Thursday, when the gunman struck.

The township has about 100 more preschool children who either go to private day care centers or stay at home, said Nanticha Panchom, the teacher who runs the day care center.

Nadiha, 43, was in the center’s kitchen cooking the children’s lunch when she heard the first gunshot from outside — police say it was the gunman who shot a man and a child in front of the building. He heard someone else yelling to lock the front door and ran outside to call for help.

“I never thought it would come in,” he said as he looked across the street at the one-story building now decorated with flowers and other tributes to the dead.

He wondered grimly if any children would ever return to daycare and what killing the others would mean for the township of about 1,900 households.

“I can’t even begin to imagine what this lost generation will mean to this community,” Nantica said.

Police identified the shooter as Panya Kamrap, 34, a former police sergeant who was fired earlier this year on a drug charge involving methamphetamine. After leaving the daycare, he killed others along the way, then his wife, child and himself at home, police said. The exact motive has not been determined, but he was due in court the next day to answer the drug charge.

Like many from the area, Tawatchi Wichaiwong came to the scene Saturday from a neighboring village with his wife, sister-in-law and three young nephews to lay flowers at the memorial outside the kindergarten.

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

For a township where people are used to a simple and peaceful daily life, 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,” he said. “That’s something we all feel – no one is affected, we’re all connected families.”

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

Chuanpit was in the outdoor toilet when she heard the gunshots and ran outside to see a man lying under a table suffering from a gunshot wound and rushed to help him. He is recovering in a hospital, but a man who worked at the district office was killed, he said.

It is the loss of the children that she finds difficult to come to terms with.

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

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

The Thai government is providing financial compensation to families to help with funeral and other expenses — at least 310,000 baht, which is about $8,300 and for many the equivalent of several months’ salary, if not more, in one of its poorest provinces country.

The government also quickly dispatched a team of trauma specialists from Bangkok who linked up with local mental health professionals on the day of the attack to help victims.

Team leader Dutsadee Juengsiragulwit, a doctor in 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, since almost everyone is affected in some way, there are no “intact” people who can support others, so it’s important that professionals provide help quickly.

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

Panomlai Srithong and her husband were working in 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 for work and were sending money home to their family, leaving 3-year-old Paweenuch in the care of her grandmother.

After an initial panic, they learned that their daughter had survived and drove home to Uthai Sawan as soon as possible.

“Breathing was difficult, I can’t describe it, but when I found out that my child survived, I was relieved,” said Panoblai. “But I also wanted to know if he had any injuries, if there was any collateral damage.”

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

She asked her grandmother where her best friend was and was told that her friend was “gone”.

“Then she found out her boyfriend died,” Panoblai said. “That was the person sleeping next to her.”

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

“There’s good luck hidden in bad luck – I’m lucky my child is fine, 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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