Saturday, July 14, 2018

Thai cave boys and Bhutanese river boys: the story that can never be forgotten

When the soccer fans across the globe were at the peak of their excitement watching the ongoing 2018 FIFA World Cup, we all know how a local football team in Thailand was going through the biggest ordeal of their life. It is very unfortunate that 12 young boys and their coach who were on a leisurely adventure into the Tham Luang cave complex had to meet such a fate. With all the internal passages blocked by flood water soon after they got inside, they were stuck underground for more than two weeks. Perching on a ledge more than 4 kilometers away from the cave-mouth, the only option the helpless boys had was to cling on to the hope that somebody might come to their rescue before they die of drowning due to the rising water-level around them or suffocation due to the exhaustion of oxygen inside the cave system.

Nevertheless, the way Thai authorities responded to the crisis was truly impressive. Soon after the boys went missing on 23rd June 2018, a massive search effort was launched involving professional divers from within and outside Thailand. To the relief of all, they were finally found by two British divers after 10 days of their disappearance. The discovery of the missing boys immediately led to one of the biggest international rescue operations that successfully brought them out of the cave after more than two weeks despite great risks and danger involved in the process. While the world that was watching with horror was finally celebrating the successful rescue operation, this particular incident revived in me the memories of that fateful day in the summer of 2009 when we lost seven precious young lives in a similar trap in Bhutan.

Unlike what happened in Thailand, the situation Bhutan had to deal with on the night of 26th July 2009 unfortunately ended with a different story. We still remember how we woke up on 27th July 2009 to the tragic news that shocked the entire nation. Seven young boys who had gone out for some outdoor fun were stuck in the middle of the raging Wangchhu River in Chukha on the evening of 26th July 2009. The boys were just crossing the river when it suddenly swelled up and pushed them to the edge of their life. When their parents and a few volunteers arrived at the scene after receiving the news from one of the members of the group who had escaped the tragedy just at the nick of time, they were seen huddled together on the top of a rock in the middle of the raging river, totally helpless and scared. One could clearly see their faces shrunken with inexplicable fear. They were all praying for help.

Soon the rescue team led by Chukha Dzongkhag officials arrived at the scene but with the raging floodwater cutting off their access to where the boys were standing, it was deemed too dangerous to launch the rescue operation. As the clock ticked by, the rescue team and the parents of the boys anxiously waited for the river to subside a bit to start their work. But with the upstream dam of Chukha Hydropower Corporation rapidly filling up beyond its normal capacity throughout the day, time was running out for the rescue team to act. Equipped with ropes and flashlights, the rescue team made several attempts to pull the boys to safety but the rushing floodwater and the accompanying debris posed a grave danger. The boys spent six long agonizing hours on that rock through the darkness of the night until the authorities at Chukha Hydropower Corporation could no longer take the risk of controlling the outflow of water from their dam. At 04:00 in the morning on 27th July 2009, a sudden huge gush of water swallowed all the boys in a flash of seconds right in front of the eyes of their helpless parents. This tragedy shocked the entire Bhutanese society and left everybody with more questions than answers. It was very unfortunate that we could not respond to the crisis like Thai authorities have demonstrated during the recent incident. Sometimes I feel if we had all the means and resources in place for the rescue operation, our boys too could have perhaps survived the ordeal. It could still be a nightmare for those parents who had to let their children vanish into the muddy water just in front of their eyes.

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