One year on from the mass killings, survivors and relatives of the dead recount the horrors
Esther spent last Christmas Eve in a state of nerves waiting for her two children as they made their way across conflict-torn Myanmar. The next day, on Christmas, she learnt she would never see them again.
It was a post on social media that revealed the dark truth, showing burned bodies heaped on top of torched trucks in the country roads close to Moso town. Her stomach sank as she recognised her 18-year-old son’s car among the twisted metal and charred remains.
“I lost everything, my hope, my life,” says Esther, a citizen of Myanmar. “I want to stay alive as a witness to judge those who killed my children.”
At least 35 people, including women and children, were killed and their bodies burned by Myanmar’s junta from morning to midday in Kayah state on December 24.
The Burmese military has held power in the country since overthrowing the government on February 1, 2021, citing electoral fraud as its justification, but has faced long-standing resistance from pro-democracy groups and militia.
This tension has flared up into repeated outbursts of violence across Myanmar, often spilling over into the public domain and culminating in the deaths of innocent civilians – overwhelmingly at the hands of the military.
Indeed, last month, local media reported that at least 12 bodies were discovered – some with limbs chopped off – after the regime raided a village in northwestern Sagaing region. Before that, on October 23, junta air strikes killed as many as 80 people, including singers and musicians, at a concert in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state.
This Christmas, however, the public will reflect on the killings of December 24.
Body bags for smouldering corpses
John, a local humanitarian worker in Myanmar, remembers the day with crystal clarity. He received an emergency alert from two friends and quickly called local rebels, who reported plumes of black smoke hurling into the skies. Then, he saw the social post – and the blackened skeleton of his friend’s SUV.
Christmas was subsequently spent sourcing body bags for the smouldering carnage.
Speaking publicly for the first time, both Esther and John are haunted by the horrors of that day.
Their accounts demonstrate the brutality of a regime that has deployed extreme violence on civilians and resistance fighters since it seized power.
As the war threatened to swallow their hometown of Hpruso, Esther’s baby-faced son, John Bosco, was ferrying their belongings to Loikaw, the capital of Kayah state, before returning to collect his mother.
Already in Loikaw, his 20-year-old sister Agnese climbed into the passenger seat for the ride back home – despite Esther’s pleas for her to stay put in the city.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, her son phoned to say they would be arriving in an hour. Just before noon, she paled as her neighbour shared news of gunfire on the outskirts of town. “I thought my children could be detained somewhere, cold and frightened,” she said.
The social media images revealed her worst fear: her son and daughter were dead, as well as her two nephews, aged 24 and 19, whose burnt-out truck was also pictured.
Local junta representatives told Esther there were no survivors. The military claimed “terrorists with weapons” were killed after people in seven vehicles refused to stop.
“What did my children do wrong?” she said. “They were not armed or part of the resistance.”
Esther said she and her remaining daughter, Maria, 16, sheltered at a convent when the military authorities started to hassle them. Eventually, they hiked through the jungle to a neighbouring country.
John’s friends, aged 32 and 28, had been travelling to see their wives and young children after delivering aid.
Earlier that month, the trio had chatted over dinner about their hopes for a better future, but on the day of the massacre John was unable to reach them.
Resistance forces later asked him to reach out into his humanitarian network and source at least 35 body bags.
When John was finally permitted to visit the site of the massacre on December 28, Burmese troops on a hillside were taking shots at the salvage efforts, he said.
On a large tarpaulin laid out behind a nearby building were burnt body parts and possessions of the deceased, he added – among them a scrap of his friend’s longyi (sarong) and driving licence, which, pressed against his chest in his shirt pocket, had partially survived the inferno.
Some of the victims were gagged, their hands tied behind their backs and cries of anguish frozen in death on their charred faces. Others were found clenching soil in their hands. Many had been reduced to ash and bone fragments.
Later, doctors recorded bashed skulls and stab wounds, and though one female victim was aged between 10 to 15, remnants of infant clothing suggested some could have been even younger.
“There could have been rape, mutilation, and torture before death,” said John. “It was like they fell into a pit, with no reverse or escape route. There was no sense of humanity.”
Suffering recurring nightmares in which his two friends beg for food, John has turned to his Christian faith to try and ease the pain. “I keep recalling it, and the anger and emotions boil,” he said.
The motive behind the massacre, said John, was “to inflict the most painful inhumane acts of terror because then the military thinks the people will kneel in fear and accept them”.
Esther has not dwelled on the motive. Widowed since 2010, she described her life as “stuck in a limbo, with no one to lean on”.
Like her fellow Karenni, an ethnic group in eastern Myanmar who widely practise Christianity and Buddhism, Esther said she will mark the massacre with quiet prayers and remembrance this Christmas, as the spiralling war continues to take its toll on families in the region.
“I wish God would grant me and my daughter a safe and peaceful place,” she said. “Right now, we are stuck in limbo. I have no husband, no one to lean on. All my relatives have fled to other areas.”
In the aftermath of the massacre, her children were buried at the foot of a nearby mountain, along with other victims of the violence.
“Every moment I wish they were alive, but I know that’s impossible,” she said. “Someday I will return to visit them and pray at their graves.”
Some names have been changed to protect identity