International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Laos
close and personal with tragedy in Savannakhet
is a serene city in Laos known for its classic French architecture
that is slowly disappearing. Its border with Thailand is marked
by the Mekong River. Each day, young men congregate along the roadside.
Smoke rises from street vendors hot skillets. They sell skewered
meat, fish, and eggs which people take to benches by the river and
eat in the midday sun.
to laugh and chat as they survey the streets waiting for people docking
from the boats, looking for rides into the city centre. A little further
up the road is a private club for elderly men to play bocce.
Along the riverfront, the old buildings that the city is famous for
are still standing. Unfortunately, the charm that the riverfront is
noted for having seemed to be missing on the day I arrived.
The vibrant chatter which initially attracted me to the river was missing.
A large crowd had gathered by the foreshore 50 metres ahead of me. Everybodys
attention was on seven men swimming in the river. They were shouting
instructions in Lao, passing orange lifejackets along a rope at a frantic
I could sense that something was wrong but I did not have the courage
to ask what was happening. People were waiting expectantly and I thought
to myself that it was as if I had entered a morgue. By the end of the
day, I wish I could have taken those thought back.
I summoned up the nerve to ask a waitress in case she knew what was
going on. Without wanting to draw too much attention to myself, I called
her over, requested a bottle of water and asked in a low voice, "What
Through a series of broken English phrases and hesitant hand gestures,
she put the pieces together so that I could work out the scenario.
"Two children jump in water for swim, people look for them,"
she began, while pointing to the group of men swimming in the river
As I looked into the distance, I could see that a strong current was
hampering their rescue efforts. But there seemed no urgency in their
voices when conducting the mission, suggesting that the children may
have already died, and that the rescuers were going through the motions
until police would arrive on the scene.
The muted sounds of on-lookers gave a hint they knew that that the children
were already but did not want to reveal their feelings in case the parents
"Where are the children now?" I asked.
A few moments of silence passed before the young lady bowed her head
and said, "You have water now. One thousand (Lao) kip, please,"
as if wanting to shoo me away.
At that point, I knew that I had touched on a sensitive topic and I
began to think of a worst-case scenario. Since nobody was absolutely
sure whether the children were still alive, I did not want to pre-empt
The lady who served me previously initially ignored me when I called
her back, but eventually returned after I indicated that I wanted to
buy some snacks from her stall.
While waiting for my food to arrive, I asked if anybody had called the
authorities. Maybe the authorities could supply a high-powered speedboat
that could cover greater terrain.
"Yes, they are over there," she answered, and singled out
some plainclothes officers to my left. One of them had a beer in his
hand. I assumed this must have been his day off.
So who are the men in the water?" I asked again.
"They are farmers and fisher (men)," she said. This was the
part-time rescue team summoned with the responsibility of trying to
locate the missing children. There were no professional lifeguards or
trained medical teams were on standby. Two local fishing boats paddled
along the water, hopeful for any signs, but they happened to be there
All the volunteers could give was their heart and very best undertaking
to locate two dead children in dangerous conditions. If the kids were
not swept out to sea at lightning speed, then they certainly would have
hit themselves on jagged rocks lying beneath the surface.
"How long have they (the children) been in the water?"
"They go inside water at 12 oclock," the lady answered
back. I looked at my watch. The time was now 12:45pm, and the childrens
chances of survival were diminishing.
Quickly surveying the crowd, I noticed that more by-passers had stopped.
Perhaps they were curious or wanted to pay their respects. My first
instinct was to leave because I did not fancy being in the vicinity
of any grief-stricken parents. "If the police and swimmers cannot
find the children, then who will help the parents?" I asked.
The young lady said "Monks pray."
I thanked her for the help she had given me, passed on a brief smile,
acknowledging the grim circumstances and set about the task of finding
my way out amongst the crowd as quickly as possible. All I wanted to
do was head back into the town centre.
Suddenly, a prolonged series of screeching wails came from a woman standing
right behind me. As I turned around, she collapsed to her knees and
started crying and yelling in Lao language right in front of me. It
was the mother of the two missing children. There was no formal recognition
of the childrens deaths, but I decided that authorities and monks
could undertake this investigation, not me. I really wanted to leave
and get back to the centre of town, but something was holding me back
I then felt a tug at my left trouser pants. The mother of two children
whose official statuses were the subject of a current rescue effort,
had fallen to her knees and latched onto the end of my pants. She was
overwhelmed by the circumstances, and had commenced wailing in Lao in
a high-pitched tone which bordered on screeching. Tears were streaming
down her face.
Although I could not deduce her age, it appeared that her back was slightly
bent due to spending years of conducting manual labour. She looked older
than her age may have suggested. Her two most important treasures had
just been snatched from her and no amount of reassurance could soothe
her. Without waiting for confirmation, the grieving process had already
If only I could understand her words, then maybe my knowledge of the
grieving process could increase. Instead, the only posture I knew was
to simply stand there and look dumb and uncaring, hoping that somebody,
preferably a monk, would come and save the day.
Everybody in the crowd felt a sense of helplessness. The image of the
womans expression was already imprinted in my memory and to this
day remains one of the most disturbing images I have ever encountered,
probably because of the raw impact of coming to terms with death in
Within a few minutes, two monks who had walked from the pagoda convinced
the woman to hold some incense sticks. At first she lacked the will
to grip onto them. Her body was completely numb and she fell to the
pavement. As the monks gently coaxed her to follow them, she resisted
further, continuing to let out painful cries. So this is how public
grief looks like up close and personal, I thought to myself. It
took two extra people in the crowd to help her, by which time she was
still crying hysterically whilst being carried away.
By contrast, her husband stayed 15 metres behind her, sobbing quietly.
He cut a forlorn figure, and his silence was as symbolic to his wifes
As I looked in his direction for a few seconds, his eyes caught mine.
Initially I interpreted his message as saying, "Why must we suffer
like this?" But his glance may have also contained a second meaning,
as in "What are you doing here?" At that point, I wished the
cracks beneath me would open, swallow me up and then spit out my bones
What saved me from drowning in my own guilt was a group of some school
children riding past on their bicycles. This turned the fathers
staring away from me and towards the newly arrived kids. They were heading
in the direction where the crowd had originally gathered. Every child
was dressed in their school uniform: a neat, white shirt and navy blue
pants. They were all curious as to the commotion taking place, oblivious
to the circumstances.
Perhaps the distraught father was hoping that his children were actually
amongst the group of children on their bikes, and would miraculously
ride over to greet him, ending the nightmare in existence. But no such
Within two minutes, one of the swimmers had climbed out of the river
and used hand gestures, signalling for the rest of his colleagues to
walk or swim further up the river. Shaking his head, I interpreted this
sign as the rescuers conceding defeat. There would be no hope of finding
the children alive, so the best they could do was further away where
maybe they could use their fishing nets to find the childrens
bodies at the bottom of the river.
As the lifesavers wandered off into the distance, the stunned crowd
dispersed and attempted to return to a semblance of normality. Some
individuals headed towards the pagoda to join the chanting and prayer
ceremonies. Slowly the vendors went back to their street-side skillets,
motorcyclists returned to their machines and the bocce game resumed.
But parents who remained near the river seemed to be holding their children
a little tighter, gripped by a steely resolve that a similar tragedy
would not strike their family.
David Calleja October 2009
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