UTHAI SAWAN, Thailand (AP) — The little girl’s nickname was Plai Fon. In Thai, it means “the end of the rainy season” – a time of happiness.
And then, in one horrific explosion of violence, the happiness the chubby-cheeked 4-year-old symbolized for his adoring family was shattered. In its place is unimaginable anguish over what happened to Play Fon Thai child care center in the massacre that began and killed 36 people, including the killer.
Her mother, Tukta Wongsila, 28, recalled her daughter’s usual morning routine: “When she woke up, she would say, ‘I love you, mom, dad and brother.'” Tukta’s grief at the memory soon took her breath away.
At least 24 children, mostly preschoolers, were killed in a gun and knife attack in northeastern Thailand on Thursday. A day after their short lives ended, desperate families spent hours in front of the administrative office near the kindergarten, waiting for their children’s bodies to be released.
Officials told the families to gather at the office so they could review their compensation claims and meet the prime minister. But Tukta did not care about forms or formalities. He just wanted his little girl.
“I want to return my daughter to the ceremony as soon as possible,” my daughter said with tears in her reddened eyes. “All this insurance money, I don’t want it. I just want him back for the funeral.”
Tukta and his family live in the rural community of Uthai Sawan, in one of the country’s poorest regions, not far from the Laos border. Like many residents, they have been struggling to pay bills for a long time.
Tukta and her husband work on the family’s rice farm during the growing season, earning about $2,600 a year if they’re lucky. They work odd jobs in their spare time to supplement their income. The couple and their children share the same house with Tukta’s mother-in-law and bedridden father-in-law. Moving to a bigger city for better jobs has become impossible due to the need to care for their young children and aging parents.
Officially named Siriprapa Prasertsuk, Plai Fon was the eldest of Tukta’s two children, three years older than his baby brother. She was small, with dark hair and plump cheeks with a bright smile. It was a smile her grandmother, 62-year-old Bandal Pornsora, already missed.
“She was a very good girl,” Bandal said. “Such a good girl.”
On Thursday, Plai Fon went to the Young Children’s Development Center, where the walls were decorated with cheerful pictures of flowers and butterflies. It was noon when a fired police officer entered and started shooting and stabbing children who were sleeping on mats and blankets and taking afternoon naps.
On Friday, as Tukta waited for her daughter’s body, she found herself thinking about the horror Plai Fon endured in her final moments.
“I want to see my daughter, see what she looks like,” he said. “I don’t know how much I hurt him. If he was (even) asleep, he must have felt the pain. I don’t know what took his life. I just want to see his face.”
He finally made his way to a nearby Buddhist temple several hours later, where relatives of the dead had gathered to receive the bodies.
Families leaving the temple said they saw massive cuts on their children. Many shouted. Some fainted.
Tukta entered the temple with her husband and mother-in-law. When they went out, Tukta’s husband collapsed. He was taken to the hospital.
Tukta sobbed and reached into her father’s arms. According to him, Plai Fon’s eyes opened wide.
On the lawn behind the temple, the couple hugged and tried to provide comfort that would not come.
Tukta clutched a framed photo of Plai Fon drawn with a yellow marker and staring into the camera with wide, black eyes. The young mother’s fingers waved at the edge of the frame as she leaned toward her father, both of them wiping away tears.
Every night before going to sleep, Tukta said that Plai Fon says, “I want to sleep with my mother.”
Tukta cried at the memory.
“These are the words I hear every night,” he said. “But I missed those words last night.”
Associated Press writer Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.
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