Thai­land’s mis­sion im­pos­si­ble: res­cue high­lights life, hope, self­less­ness

Cape Times - - INSIGHT - Shan­non Ebrahim

SOME­TIMES there is a story about the in­cred­i­ble re­silience and gen­eros­ity of the hu­man spirit that in­spires and makes us be­lieve in the good­ness that still ex­ists among us.

For all the hor­rors of civil wars, death and de­struc­tion that at times seem to be like a hu­man race to the bot­tom, a story sud­denly emerges about life, hope and self­less­ness.

This week there was just such an awe-in­spir­ing story that came from deep within a moun­tain in north­ern Thai­land, from the depths of a cave com­plex that has long been the source of spir­i­tual leg­ends.

The story which trans­fixed the world took place just an hour north of Thai­land’s cul­tural cap­i­tal, Chi­ang Mai, made fa­mous for its hand­painted um­brel­las and lan­tern fes­ti­val.

I never had the chance to ex­plore the mys­te­ri­ous cave com­plexes that have be­witched gen­er­a­tions of Thais, but I did wit­ness the end­less “spirit houses” that lit­ter the coun­try roads sur­round­ing Chi­ang Mai. Not un­der­stand­ing what a spirit house was, I was quickly in­formed that the struc­tures which look like an ar­ray of colour­ful bird­houses on stilts at the side of the roads were in­hab­ited by spir­its, and the houses should in no way be in­ter­fered with.

If spirit houses are cloaked in mys­tery, the out­ly­ing cave com­plexes har­bour a nether­world of su­per­sti­tion. Sa­cred caves in Thai­land have long been known as places of both mys­ti­cal power and dan­ger. The Tham Luang cave com­plex, where 12 young boys and their soc­cer coach al­most lost their lives over the past fort­night, is one such cave.

It all started ever so in­no­cently when Ekkapol Ake Chanta­wong – known as Coach Ake – the Bud­dhist monk-turned-soc­cer coach, had taken his young soc­cer team be­tween the ages of 11 and 16 into the cave com­plex to ex­plore, leav­ing their bi­cy­cles at the cave en­trance.

Af­ter some time and much to their hor­ror, the wa­ter lev­els in the cave started to rise and they found them­selves trapped deep along the 3.2km cave path.

With the wa­ter ris­ing and block­ing their es­cape, the boys be­came trapped on a small rock shelf deep in­side the cave’s vast net­work of tun­nels.

It is hard to imag­ine be­ing caught on a rock shelf in the cold damp­ness in to­tal dark­ness – which blocked out all sense of time or re­al­ity. The min­utes turned into hours, and hours turned into days. The seem­ingly hope­less sit­u­a­tion went on for nine agonising days, with­out the boys hav­ing any in­for­ma­tion about whether the au­thor­i­ties were aware of their lo­ca­tion, or whether a search was even un­der way.

The old­est boy had turned 17 the day they en­tered the cave, and it was the packed birth­day snacks that ended up sav­ing their lives, along with the drip­ping wa­ter from the cave walls. Coach Ake had re­fused to eat so as to leave any nour­ish­ment for his team, and had taught them med­i­ta­tion to get them through the trau­ma­tis­ing or­deal. Ake wanted to min­imise the oxy­gen they were us­ing as lev­els had dipped to 15% in the cor­ner in which they were hud­dled.

In a re­mark­able show of re­silience, the boys had proac­tively used rocks to dig 5m deeper into the cave to create a tun­nel where they could keep warm. It was nine soli­tary days be­fore res­cuers were able to lo­cate them, and it be­came a race against time to pump mil­lions of gal­lons of wa­ter from the cave.

If the boys were to avoid be­ing left in their predica­ment for months un­til the end of the mon­soon sea­son, there was no other al­ter­na­tive but to learn to dive us­ing scuba masks and oxy­gen tanks. Once they mas­tered that, they had to learn to tra­verse nar­row and jagged tun­nels. One pas­sage was too nar­row to even wear oxy­gen tanks on their backs and they were forced to push the oxy­gen tanks ahead of them along the nar­row water­way.

Three dar­ing res­cue op­er­a­tions took place since Sun­day, with four boys be­ing ex­tracted on Sun­day, four on Mon­day and five on Tues­day night. By the time the last boys were res­cued, they had been trapped for 17 days.

What is in­ter­est­ing is that this or­deal cap­tured the world’s head­lines for days on end, while over the same pe­riod,

330 000 des­per­ate Syr­i­ans were dis­placed from South­ern Syria through bomb­ing. Hun­dreds of thou­sands have been trapped at the closed borders with Jor­dan and Is­rael.

They are lan­guish­ing in the desert with­out drink­able wa­ter or shel­ter, and many are dy­ing from de­hy­dra­tion and ex­po­sure to the el­e­ments.

The or­deal of the trapped Syr­ian refugees has been no less trau­ma­tis­ing than be­ing trapped in a dark cave. Are we so de­sen­si­tised to the Syr­ian catas­tro­phe that our at­ten­tion grav­i­tates far more eas­ily to a dra­matic cave res­cue?

Over 1000 peo­ple were in­volved in the cave res­cue with teams from China, Myan­mar, Laos, Aus­tralia, the US and Britain. Un­for­tu­nately the trapped Syr­i­ans hardly made the news, and no res­cue ef­forts have been launched to save them. Hypocrisy aside, at least we could write about an in­spir­ing hu­man story in Thai­land with a happy end­ing.

Syria will be the sub­ject for Sun­day’s Global Spot­light.

Pic­ture: AP/African News Agency (ANA)

TEAM EF­FORT: A pic­ture from a video re­leased via the Thai Navy SEAL Facebook Page on Wed­nes­day shows res­cuers evac­u­at­ing a boy from the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thai­land.

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