Whenever 10-year-old Aye Chan Moe sees a helicopter flying above her village of Let Yat Kone in Sagaing Region, she is gripped by terror, fearful that she will be killed like her friends.
Until recently, the Grade 3 student was thrilled by the spectacle of helicopters in the sky. Like other kids living in remote villages who rarely see aircraft, she would gleefully run out of her house and watch helicopters flying above.
But now, just the sound of a helicopter is enough to leave her badly frightened. She was among the “lucky” young survivors of the junta’s recent air strikes on her school. As a child exposed to battlefield atrocities, she has suffered immeasurable trauma. The air strikes on Sept. 16 left 13 people dead, including seven children.
Witnessing death up close
On that sunny day, Aye Chan Moe and her friends were playing in the compound of a monastic school attended by more than 200 students in Let Yat Kone, a couple of kilometers from Depayin town in Sagaing Region. Suddenly, two Russian-made Mi-35 military helicopters swept down and opened fire on the school and its compound.
The military choppers fired machine guns and other heavy weapons at the school while the children were playing and studying. Many kids, including Aye Chan Moe, ran to hide behind a giant tamarind tree near their classrooms.
Amid the loud explosions, she saw Win Win Khaing, an 11-year-old girl from Grade 4, get hit in the back and fall face down.
“Win Win Khaing was shot while she was running. I heard her shouting, ‘Sayama [teacher], help me!’” Aye Chan Moe recalled. But no one could help Win Win Khaing as the helicopters above their heads kept raining gunfire down on them. Minutes later, she died just where she fell.
While Aye Chan Moe and other children were hiding around the tamarind tree, Chaw Chaw, 12, ran to Aye Chan Moe, limping badly. Aye Chan Moe saw one of Chaw Chaw’s feet had been badly injured by an explosive that landed in her classroom.
“Her foot was shattered—almost nothing, no more bones,” Aye Chan Moe told The Irrawaddy.
Chaw Chaw was crying in pain. One of her eyes was also hit. Aye Chan Moe saw pieces of flesh from the other children stuck to her head.
“She said to me, “I don’t know who will cure me. Help me!” Aye Chan Moe recalled. “I tried to calm her by saying, ‘After the planes leave, our teacher will help cure your injuries. Stay strong, Ma Ma [sister].”
After almost an hour of air strikes, infantry soldiers entered the school compound and shouted at them to come out from hiding, or they would kill them all. Aye Chan Moe helped the injured Chaw Chaw to walk with her, and other kids also emerged from their hiding places.
When they gathered in the staircase of the adjacent monastery that houses their classrooms, Aye Chan Moe saw many injured students from Grade 6 and Grade 7. One of them was 7-year-old Phone Tay Za, a Grade 1 student, who was lying in a pool of blood, his lower torso badly injured.
“I am very sorry for them. I feel so sad,” Aye Chan Moe said in a low voice.
A boy loses his life trying to retrieve his bag
Phone Tay Za was one of the children brutally killed by the regime’s Mi-35 military helicopters. His orange school bag and bloodstained books were found near the entrance of the classroom.
His cousin Lin Lin, 8, also in Grade 1, said Phone Tay Za told Lin Lin he wanted to retrieve his bag and suddenly ran to his classroom from their hiding place at the foot of the tamarind tree while the helicopters continued to fire with heavy weapons.
The 7-year-old reached the bag, but as he was running back from the classroom, an explosive landed near him. His cousin Lin Lin saw every detail of the gruesome scene.
“He called me from where he was lying in a pool of blood: ‘Ko Ko [brother], come and take me, I’m hurt!’” Lin Lin said, his voice cracked and trembling.
“I was crying when I saw my young cousin lying in a pool blood. I had warned him not to retrieve the bag,” Lin Lin recalled, weeping.
Phone Tay Za was killed on the spot in the air strike. Like him, 7-year-old Su Yati Hlaing was brutally struck down. Lin Lin saw a piece of a projectile strike the forehead of one of his friends, before another caused terrible, fatal injuries to Su Yati Hlaing.
“Su Yati Hlaing’s hands and feet were cut off by the weapons. And her chest became a big hole,” Lin Lin said. “I saw other students with their guts coming out and their chests were smashed.”
Phone Tay Za, Su Yati Hlaing, Win Win Khaing, 11, Zin Nwe Phyo, 9, and three other children were killed in the aerial attack, which the regime said targeted People’s Defense Force and Kachin Independence Army fighters it claimed were deployed in the school. After the air strikes, at least 21 people, including injured children and teachers, were taken hostage and they have yet to be released. Except for two with serious injuries, the children haven’t been allowed to return home yet.
Hundreds of children fall victim to junta attacks, air strikes
Over the past 20 months since military chief Min Aung Hlaing staged a coup on Feb. 1, 2021, the junta has been brutally crushing all anti-regime opponents and resistance forces without sparing the lives of innocent children across the country.
Sagaing, where the Let Yat Kone school is located, is one of the regions in central Myanmar targeted by the junta’s fighter jets and military helicopters. Similarly, the junta has been using excessive force in the form of military aircraft and infantry troops to crush resistance forces in Magwe in central Myanmar, Chin in the west, Tanintharyi in the southwest, Karen in the south and southeast, Kayah in the east and Kachin in the north.
The junta’s forces have been indiscriminately attacking not only resistance areas but also residential towns and villages, schools and religious buildings.
There have been 173 aerial attacks in Kayah State since the coup, according to the Progressive Karenni People Force based in Kayah State. It said that more than 300 civilians, including many children, were killed by regime forces in the area.
At least 234 children have been killed since the coup in junta raids and air strikes across the country, according to the parallel National Unity Government’s Ministry of Women, Youths and Children Affairs.
“I will create a catapult to shoot the fighter jets when I grow up.”
Among more than 1 million people who have been forced to leave their homes as internally displaced persons since the coup, a large number of children have been suffering from regime air strikes and raids with their families.
Saw Doh Doh, an 11-year-old ethnic Karen, is missing his two dogs, which were left in his village when he and his family fled junta raids in Karen State. Although he lives in a refugee camp in Lay Kay Kaw Township on the Myanmar-Thai border, he still needs to run and hide whenever the junta’s fighter jets fly over.
“‘The airplane is coming! Run! Run!’ some people shouted,” Saw Doh Doh recalled. “I heard the sounds of airplanes when I was having lunch. My younger sister and I ran without washing our hands. Our rice plates also fell over.”
“As we cannot live in our village, we fled into the forest,” Saw Doh Doh told The Irrawaddy.
Like Saw Doh Doh, 12-year-old Karen girl Naw Khu Lar was among many children who were forced to flee with their families due to junta raids in her village. She, too, heard the sounds of airplanes while they were passing through fields on the way to a makeshift camp in a forest. When they arrived in the forest, the military fighter jets were flying overhead. She saw a jet clearly and prayed that she wouldn’t be shot.
“We were hiding under the bushes when the plane was overhead. There were a lot of leeches. I am really afraid of and disgusted by them but I didn’t dare move. If the plane saw us, they would shoot at us,” Naw Khu Lar said, recalling her experience of hiding from air strikes.
Like other children, she hasn’t been able to go to school for a long time because of the junta raids on their villages.
In the 20 months from February 2021 to August 2022, 131 civilians were killed and 294 injured in a total of 117 airstrikes by the junta’s jet fighters and helicopters, according to the Karen National Union (KNU). The ethnic armed group said those figures only counted air strikes and casualties within their controlled territory.
Saw Min Lwin is another victim of the junta troops, who shot and wounded the 9-year-old in the leg. Even though he was hurt, he had to run when military jets flew over their camp.
“I ran and hid myself whenever I heard the sounds of airplanes and gunshots. Now my injured leg is back to normal. I want to go home,” said Saw Min Lwin.
As the fortunate survivors and eyewitnesses to the horrific massacre of their friends in Let Yat Kone, many kids, including 10-year-old Aye Chan Moe and 8-year-old Lin Lin, have been left with a permanent fear of aircraft.
“I was lucky enough to be spared this time [from the air strikes]. However I may not be spared next time. I am afraid to die,” Aye Chan Moe told The Irrawaddy.
Lin Lin had nightmares for five days after the tragedy. In his dreams, he was in the school and saw the students dying.
At the end of the interview with The Irrawaddy, Lin Lin had a request. “Please arrest those sit-khwe [military dogs, referring to the military soldiers and junta] quickly. I want to go to school. I want to study.”
The children from Karen State also expressed their wish to go home as soon as possible.
“I want to tell the soldiers not to come to our place. I am not happy here [in the camp]. I miss my home,” said Saw Min Lwin.
Naw Khu Lar, 12, always prays that planes won’t shoot at them and prays to be able to go home.
“I want to go to school. I want to have enough food to eat. And, I no longer want to hear the sounds of gunshots and heavy weapons.”
Saw Doh Doh, a brave boy in Lay Kay Kaw, wants to rendezvous with his two dogs, Pa Lar and Meggi. Before they fled their village, Saw Doh Doh was looking for his dogs but couldn’t find them. He worries that they are hungry.
On the other hand, the 11-year-old boy also plans to fight back against the junta airstrikes when he grows up.
“I will create a catapult to shoot the fighter jets when I grow up.”
Editor’s note: Some names in this story have been changed for security reasons.