Content Warning: This story contains descriptions of violence against children and images that viewers may find disturbing.
Bhone Tayza was impatient to start school. A broken arm kept the 7-year-old at home while the other kids started classes, but now that he was out of his cast, he couldn't wait to join in.
Her mother, Thida Win, was still worried. “Just stay home for today,” she remembers telling her son on his third day back at school last September, but he went anyway.
Hours later, the air strike took place.
Thida Win was at her home in Myanmar's central Sagaing region when army helicopters began firing "heavy weapons", including machine guns near her home, she said. She took cover until the shooting stopped, then ran to the nearby school, frantic. He eventually found Bhone in a classroom, barely alive in a pool of blood, next to the bodies of other children.
"He asked me twice: 'Mom, please kill me,'" she said. "He was in a lot of pain." Surrounded by armed soldiers from the Myanmar military who had invaded the school grounds, she sat Bhone on her lap, praying and doing her best to comfort him until he died.
The junta overthrew democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was latersentenced to 33 years in prisonduring secret trials;repressedon the anti-coup protests; detained journalists and political prisoners; Yexecuted several prominent pro-democracy activists, receiving condemnation from the United Nations and human rights groups.
Two yearshenceforth, the Southeast Asian country is being rocked by violence and instability. The economy collapsed, with shortages of food, fuel and other basic supplies. Myanmar's National Security and Defense Council has complied with the request of junta leader Min Aung Hlaing to extend the state of emergency for another six months, state media reported on Wednesday.
Deep in the jungle, rebel groups took the fight to the military. Among them are many teenagers and college graduates whose lives and ambitions have been shattered by a war with no end in sight.
Rebel fighters escort demonstrators as they take part in a demonstration against the military coup in Sagaing, Myanmar, on September 7, 2022.
the school strike
For months after the coup, millions of people in Myanmar participated noprotests, strikes and other forms of civil disobedience, reluctant to give up newly won freedoms under the ensuing democratic reformsdecades of brutal military rule.
CNN has reached out to the Myanmar military for comment. Havepreviously claimed in state mediais using “minimum force” and is complying with “existing international laws and regulations”.
Since the coup, at least 2,900 people in Myanmar have been killed by junta troops and more than 17,500 arrested, most of whom are still in detention, according to the advocacy group Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners (AAPP).
Anti-coup protesters march on a street in Yangon, Myanmar, on February 8, 2021.
While mass protests have subsided, allegations of atrocities committed by military troops continue to surface, including the school strike in the village of Let Yet Kone.
Daw Aye Mar Swe, a teacher at the school, said she led students into classrooms when military helicopters approached, shortly before the horror struck.
The airstrike hit the ceiling, scattering debris around. The room filled with dark smoke, and then the the soldiers arrived.
They began "shooting at the school for an hour non-stop ... with the intent of killing us all," he told CNN.
He pushed his students under the beds to protect himself, but to little avail. A young woman was shot in the back. Trying in vain to stem the bleeding, he urged his weeping students, "Say a prayer, for only God can save us now."
When the shooting ended, the soldiers ordered everyone out, he said. Students crowded the school grounds while soldiers invaded the rest of the village and made arrests, said Daw Aye Mar Swe. He remembers seeing Bhone Tayza among the wounded.
The Government of National Unity (NUG), the shadow administration of Myanmar's ousted lawmakers, said 20 students and teachers were arrested after the airstrikes.
It is unclear what happened to them. CNN was unable to independently verify details of the incident.
Debris on the floor of a damaged school building in Sagaing, Myanmar after it was attacked by the army, photographed on September 17, 2022.
At the time, an armed forces spokesman said government forces entered Let Yet Kone village to eliminate rebel "terrorists" and blamed the Kachin Independence Army, a rebel group, and the Kachin Defense Force. Pueblo (PDF), an umbrella organization of armed groups. guerrillas, to use children as "human shields".
Thida Win and Daw Aye Mar Swe have denied these allegations. "Here there is no PDF, nor shot (made by PDF)", said the professor. "(The military) fire at us without any purpose or investigation."
For some bereaved parents, the agony of losing their child was compounded by the denial of a proper goodbye.
After the strike, two residents, who declined to be identified Fearing for their safety, they said the military took the bodies and buried them in another township several kilometers away.
Thida Win corroborated this account, saying that she cried and begged the soldiers to "let me bury my son alone... but they took him away". When she contacted a military commander the next day, he said that Bhone had already been cremated. To this day, she has not collected his ashes, saying that she would not sign any documents issued by the junta that murdered her son.
"There are no words... my heart is broken," he said.
Debris and bloodstains on the floor of a Sagaing school attacked by the Myanmar army, pictured on September 17, 2022.
From high school to the battle lines
In between these large-scale attacks, smaller battles rage every day between the military and rebel groups that have sprung up across the country, allying with long-established ethnic militias.
Some of these groups effectively control parts of Myanmar beyond the junta's reach, and many are made up of young volunteers who have left family and friends behind for what they say is their nation's future.
Shan Lay, 20, was a senior in high school when the scam took place. Now, he spends his days on the front lines as a member of the MoeBye PDF Rescue Team, a small group of combat medics who treat and evacuate wounded PDF fighters in eastern Myanmar.
It can be dangerous work; Shan Lay recalled an instance where military soldiers shot and destroyed their vehicle, forcing the team to jump out of the car and run to safety.
Another member of the rescue team, Rosalin, a former nurse, described a time hiding in what was supposed to be a secret clinic. The building had been surrounded by junta soldiers and planes were circling overhead, so the team waited for nightfall so they could escape in the dark. “I thought I was going to die and I was ready to give up on my life,” she said.
CNN refers to Shan Lay and Rosalin by their "revolutionary names," pseudonyms that many in the resistance movement adopt for their safety.
Videos of their daily operations, shared by the rescue team, reveal makeshift tools and treacherous conditions. Often they don't use helmets or protective equipment, dodging shots only with flip-flops, T-shirts, long pants and backpacks.
Clips show the group transporting wounded fighters over rocky dirt roads and providing medical assistance during bumpy rides in pickup trucks; sometimes they have nothing but boiled water to sterilize the wounds, Rosalín said.
When the fighting ends, they treat wounded civilians displaced from their homes and distribute food.
Members of a rebel group in Karenni state, eastern Myanmar, on a boat heading from the Thai border to Myanmar.
Their jobs are made difficult by remote terrain, unstable telecommunications and unpredictable dangers. When they spoke to CNN over Zoom in January, they had climbed to a higher altitude for better phone service and were running behind schedule after responding to a PDF fighter who had lost his footing after stepping on a landmine.
Rosalin said the junta left them no choice but to fight back after crushing their peaceful protests.
“We know that we may have to give up our lives. But if we don't fight like this, we know we won't get democracy, which is what we want,” he said. "As long as this dictatorship is present and we don't have democracy, this revolution will continue."
Even those not at the front have found other ways to resist; there are clandestine hospitals and schools operating out of sight of the junta, and people have boycotted products or services related to the junta.
"It's a remarkable display of courage and determination on the part of the people," said Tom Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.
Combat medics from the Moebye PDF Rescue Team hide behind a wall as they prepare to rescue rebel fighters in Moe Bye, Myanmar, September 9, 2022.
Against all odds
However, despite the rebels' best efforts, it's a desperately uneven fight. And after two years of conflict, its funds and resources are dwindling.
“Before we had our own houses and pots, we had our own rice, we had part of our money,” said Rosalin. “But we had to leave our homes behind and go live in the jungle.” Finding food and shelter is a challenge, she added.
Shan Lay said that some people have sold their homes and land to buy guns and bullets, but it is still not enough and there is a difficult road ahead.
The fighting “is more violent” now, he said. "(The council) is using bigger guns than before."
Resources are also scarce at other rebel bases, with footage from Karenni state in eastern Myanmar showing uniformed youths training in the mountains, making homemade ammunition in jungle workshops and storing the ammunition in coolers.
The images are a far cry from the powerful military arsenal of tanks and fighter jets.
The junta demonstrated its devastating firepower weeks after the school attack withone of his deadliest air attacksin the file.
Crowds gathered in the A Nang Pa region of Myanmar's northern Kachin state to celebrate the 62nd anniversary of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
Although the event was organized by KIO, it was aimed at the public, with entertainers, singers, religious and industry leaders invited, according to a businessman present. He described a feast day, with people bathing in a creek, playing golf and eating pasta under teak trees before attending a musical performance by a famous singer.
When the air strike happened, "it was like the end of the world", said the businessman. Footage of the moment of impact, shared with CNN by KIO, shows people sitting around tables in front of the stage as there is a blinding light and a loud bang, followed by flashes of orange light and then blackness.
"I heard people crying, talking and moaning," said the businessman. "I was in a horrible scene." Bodies seemed to be everywhere; he saw people trapped under rubble and some who had lost limbs.
Videos of the aftermath show buildings reduced to rubble and body bags lined up on the ground.
CNN is not naming the businessman for his safety.
The attack killed up to 70 people, according to KIO. CNN cannot independently verify the number.
When CNN requested the junta's comment on the attack, CNN's email and an official response were published in Myanmar's government-owned Global New Light newspaper. Military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it a necessary military operation targeting "a lair where enemies and terrorists were hiding". He also stated that the military "never attacked civilians", calling such reports "fake news".
KIO leaders deny this. They say the site was a day's walk from the nearest KIA battalion, and although some KIO members were in uniform for the event, they did not carry weapons or military equipment.
Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur, also questioned the junta's claim not to attack civilians. "That claim is preposterous," he told CNN in January. "There is clear evidence that we have air strikes on cities."
an uncertain future
As millions of Myanmar civilians grapple with their grim post-coup reality, much of the world is looking the other way.
“It's been two years of devastation for the junta and the military at war with its own people,” Andrews said. "We've seen 1.1 million people displaced, over 28,000 homes destroyed, thousands of people killed."
The economy is in free fall, with Myanmar's GDP contracting by 18% in 2021. While the World Bank forecasts a slight recovery to 3% growth in 2022, some experts say this is"extremely over-optimistic".
About 40% of the population lived below the poverty line last year, "reverting nearly a decade of progress in reducing poverty," the report says.The World Bank said last July. Prices for basic commodities such as food and fuel soared.
But little support came from abroad. HimEuropean Parliamentpassed a motion in 2021 endorsing the NUG as “the sole legitimate representatives of the democratic desires of the people of Myanmar” and remains one of the few places to do so. But no military aid followed.
Internally displaced people living in makeshift shelters in the jungle in Myanmar's Karen state, near the Thai border, on January 16, 2023.
Although the European Union and other governments have provided funding for humanitarian aid, aid remains limited. Groups such as the Red Cross say their operations on the ground have been hampered by conflict and financial challenges. At thea december report, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said its response plan for Myanmar was "drastically underfunded", amounting to US$290 million of the US$826 million needed.
The conflict "has been forgotten," Andrews said, contrasting the international community's muted response to Myanmar against the rush to provide weapons, funding and other forms of assistance to Myanmar.Ukraine in its war against Russia.
Ukraine's model could be applied to Myanmar, he added, not in terms of importing arms, but taking "coordinated actions like economic sanctions that target the junta's source of revenue, that target its weapons, that target raw material prizes. that they use". are using to manufacture weapons inside the country”.
A boy cooks rice at a camp for displaced people in the jungle in Karen state on January 16, 2023. There is no clean water in the camp and food is scarce.
Andrews pointed to signs that the junta is also struggling, making international aid even more critical to turn the tide. There are reports that the military controls less than half of the country and that its operations are struggling financially, thanks in part to sanctions already in place, he said. saying. But still more is needed.
"If (the conflict) remains in the shadows of international attention, we will be condemning countless numbers of people to death," warned Andrews.
Thida Win, mother of Bhone Tayza, made a similar claim. She is still mourning the loss of a son she described as studious, intelligent and kind, on whom she "had such high hopes".
"I want to ask the world to support us so that our children's deaths are not in vain," he said. “Could you just look away from us? How many children have to risk their lives?
CNN's Heather Law contributed reporting.