Red Cross Convoy Attack: The Scariest Moment of My Life

By J Paing 20 February 2015

It was the scariest moment of my life.

On Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 17, I and several other photojournalists travelled on a Myanmar Red Cross Society convoy carrying dozens of civilians through one of the most lawless and rugged areas of the Kokang Special Region in northern Burma’s Shan State when we came under attack from unknown gunmen.

We had spent Tuesday morning in Laukkai, the war-wrecked Kokang administrative capital located close to the Burma-China border, and photographed its deserted center. Businesses were shuttered, walls were scarred by bullet holes and once-thriving gambling stations were lifeless. We found a large group of terrified civilians hiding from the violence and helped them on to our trucks which bore Red Cross flags.

Several minutes after we left Laukkai on our way back to Chin Shwe Haw, we heard the sudden crackle of automatic rifle gunfire coming from the left side of the seven-truck convoy. I was in the fourth vehicle, a van that was converted into an ambulance, and was with a group of seven women, one of whom was pregnant.

I was sitting in the front seat when I saw a hail of bullets strike down on the road; immediately I realized we were the target of an ambush. A few seconds later, we heard a huge explosion nearby. We later learned it was a rocket-propelled grenade that luckily missed our convoy.

I ran out of the van and dived into a roadside gutter for safety. Other people did the same. I found myself in the gutter lying near a Buddhist monk. Instinctively, I took his picture. Bullets struck the ground nearby. I was scared as hell; never in my 28-year-old life had I come under targeted gunfire.

As a photojournalist working for The Irrawaddy for more than three years, I had faced danger before: Angered Arakanese mobs approached me in the aftermath of clashes with Muslims communities in 2012 and menacingly told me to “report right” on the violence in Arakan State. Last year, I spent days with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army as they moved in close proximity to the Burma Army through the Shan hills.

Nothing compares, however, to the attack we experienced on Tuesday.

The volleys of gunfire came to a halt after an agonizingly-long five minutes. Then, there came silence, and after a while we slowly raised our heads to see what had happened.

The first vehicle in our convoy had sustained much of the attack. I found the driver and another Red Cross staff volunteer injured on the roadside. One had been hit in the abdomen and was crying out for help; the other only sustained a minor injury from being hit by parts of the shattered windshield.

Wearing helmets and bulletproof vests, Lynn Bo Bo of the European Press Agency and Soe Zeya Tun of news agency Reuters rushed to the seriously injured man, and together with two Red Cross volunteers they carried him to the safety. I took their picture, and then I climbed into the van to help the injured.

On our way back to Chin Shwe Haw, I let Moe Kyaw Than, who was in pain from the wound in his abdomen, sleep on my lap while I talked to him non-stop to keep him awake as blood streamed from the wound. Luckily, he was able to reach Kunglong Hospital on time to receive medical treatment. He survived the injury and I am happy to know that he is feeling better now.

Despite the intense fear and danger, I have no regrets about joining the trip to Laukkai. I will never forget it and am satisfied knowing that I took good photos of the terrible events that affect some many peoples’ lives in northern Shan State. We, journalists, not only care for news or the pictures we can get, we care about other people’s well-being too.