By Owei Lakemfa
A dozen boys, members of a youth football club with the intimidating name, The Wild Boars, ventured into the six-mile Tham Luang Cave. The cave is in the 1,275-kilometre long Doi Non Mountain Range in North Thailand. The boys are aged 11-16 with Wiboonrungrueng Chanin, being the youngest. With them was their 25-year old coach, Ekaphol Chantawong, an orphan who was taking care of his grandmother. That was the beginning of a nightmare as they were not heard of again. The date was June 23.
A frantic search commenced as parents reported their children missing. It was a race against time that would make the difference between life or death. The cave was flooded and heavy rains were pounding the earth. Within days, the rest of humanity had joined the search by sending experts in various fields, through prayers or expressing concern. Experts from at least half a dozen countries including Britain, China, Australia, America, Denmark and Thailand were among the multinational 100 rescuers, that went into the cave. A thousand Thai soldiers were mobilized as well as 10, 000 support staff.
Humanity had faced a similar situation in 2010 when 33 Chilean miners were stuck for 69 days, 2,300 feet below the ground. That had resulted in collective human triumph. But this seemed worse given the fact that these were children who could easily quarrel among themselves and could become disobedient to the only adult amongst them. Also, unlike the miners who knew the hazards of their profession and could have been psychologically attuned, these were mere boys. Also, unlike the Chilean case, the Thai situation was a cave which could harbor dangerous animals and reptiles which an unarmed team of boys, might not be able to overcome. Worse was the possibility of drowning, and of course, starvation.
On July 2, nine days after they went missing, the team was located three kilometres from the cave entrance. They were found on a ledge surrounded by water. Two miles of narrow, flooded passage ways separated them from freedom. It was a miracle!
Understandably, the boys were frightened and malnourished. They sent massages to their parents. Particularly touching was Coach Chantawong who sent a letter to the parents blaming himself for the trauma. But doubtlessly, his leadership qualities and influence on the boys had kept up team spirit and hope. The former monk who faced his own fears of death, had calmed down the boys, suggested meditation, advised them not to move their bodies much, urged them to stay conscious and not allow their minds wonder. To his letter, the parents had responded “Please don’t blame yourself”
But more miracle was demanded as the team could not swim and the waters that had formed an island around them and filled their escape route, was not about to part like the Biblical Red Sea. Billionaire inventor, Elon Musk came up with the idea of his team quickly building a kid-sized submarine made up of rocket parts that could move the children through the waters to safety. The Thai authorities declined the offer. Rather, they went for the option of draining the waters as much as possible, and when reasonable levels are attained, to get the boys who were being trained to swim, to get out in diving suits.
This itself was not without great risk and the rains were not about to cease to allow the draining go smoothly. Then, there were worries about the lowering levels of oxygen in the cave. This became more worrisome when rescuer, Saman Kunan, a retired Thai Navy SEAL who had gone into the cave to place oxygen canisters along the route, himself ran out of oxygen and died. Nevertheless, the rescue went on apace.
With lower water levels attained and forecast of heavy rains coming, the decision was taken to move out the first set of four boys on Sunday, July 8. Each boy, equipped with scuba diving kits, was tethered to a rescuer in front who also carried his air tank, and a second rescuer behind him. With that, they emerged safely and were taken to hospital. Next day, another four were rescued in similar fashion. The rescuers took some rest, re-equipped, and on Tuesday, July 10, the last four boys, their coach and the entire rescue team emerged from the cave to a worldwide celebration. It was hours to the explosive semi-final match at the Russia 2018 World Cup, and it was going to seem a moral dilemma that large sections of the world would be cheering their favourite teams while the life of the Thai boys remained endangered. When France defeated the Belgians 1-0, the squad leader, wisely dedicated the victory to the Thai boys and their coach. FIFA which had invited the boys and their coach to the Sunday finals of the World Cup, regretted they will be unable to be present due to their hospitalization. But the team is likely to honour the invitation of Manchester United which invited them to Old Trafford.
It was a jubilant humanity. When the final rescue came, British Prime Minister, Theresa May was facing political pressures following the resignations of Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, Brexit Secretary, David Davis and two Tory Vice Chair Persons, Maria Caufield and Ben Bradley. But she put aside her worries including a possible vote of no confidence, to send a message saying: “ The world was watching and will be saluting the bravery of all those involved…”
Amidst the jubilation, the Spanish Royal family, remembered Saman Kunan who lost his life in the rescue operation. So did the Italian football team, AS Roma which sent out a message: “ Our thoughts are with the family of the ex-Navy SEAL diver, Saman Kunan who died after delivering the boys oxygen. A real hero”
In a post-rescue post, the Thai SEAL said “We are not sure if this is a miracle , a science or what” I say, it is combination of all.
It is instructive that in a world dominated by strong men and women who assume that call the shots, those who sent humanity into a frenzy dance of joy and who performed the super human feat of snatching the Thai boys and their coach from the jaws of death, are ordinary people. It is their commitment and sacrifice, the resilience of the boys and their coach, and a united humanity, that made the seemingly impossible, possible. What we need are not the strong, powerful and rich, but those who exude love for human life and are committed to remaking the world.
Owei Lakemfa is a prolific writer and one of the leaders of Nigeria’s civil rights movement