Guest Post: “… doing our very best only.” Marc Aronson and the Global Cooperation of the Thai Cave Rescue
Today I am pleased to be hosting Marc Aronson, the writer, editor, publisher, speaker, and historian. This post discusses his new work Rising Water: The Story of the Thai Cave Rescue which, in a starred review, Kirkus said his, “Solid writing preserves the natural rising suspense and astonishing details of this rescue.”
I was hiking in the Swiss-Italian Alps with my family – guided by Roy Freeman, Don-of-Corduroy-fame’s-son and my earliest friend – when I got an email from Atheneum asking me if I wanted to write a book about the astonishing rescue of the soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand. There was something appropriate about getting the email just then. Roy is a geologist and he was leading us on a journey to see the exact spot where the African tectonic plate had crashed into the Eurasian plate some 30 million years ago. Twenty-first century digital connections had allowed me to follow the rescue even as we traversed the terrain of ancient geological continental mergers. For, as I soon learned, while the dramatic events took place in Thailand, and so much about the happy outcome was a product of Thai generosity, openness, and mental discipline, it was actually the most truly international event. As much as the rescue relied on bravery, skill, and training, it really was a testimony to the possibility — the necessity — of global cooperation. Indeed it was – and the rescuers felt this clearly – an absolute, direct, rebuke to the kind of nationalist populism that is building walls and barriers between people and nations. I knew I wanted to tell the rescue story – I just did not, at first, know the story I was going to tell.
Even as the boys were being carried out of the cave a New York Times reporter added a new dimension to the saga: three of them, and the assistant coach who was so central to aiding and guiding them in the cave, were “stateless.” The cave is in the far north of Thailand, in the “Golden Triangle” where Laos, Burma (Myanmar), and Thailand meet. Those borders are notoriously porous – to drug smugglers, and for people. Many who come to wealthier Thailand seeking better lives, better schools for their children, no longer have papers from their native lands. They do not just lack official permission to be in Thailand, they are no longer citizens of anywhere else. To be “stateless” is to be “undocumented” plus. The government has no place to send you back to – but also will not accept you as a citizen. You can study, work, play soccer – but must know that every policeman eyeing you is a potential threat, and that you can never go to college, play for the national team, or even get married. You are a stateless shadow.
As I soon learned, the Wild Boar club to which the boys and coach belonged had been created in good part for just such endangered young people: twenty out of the seventy members were stateless – without a country. And, according to human rights and UN sources, the stateless population in Thailand is somewhere between 400,000 and three million. Precisely at the moment that our President was separating children from parents at our Southern border, the Thai cave rescue that riveted the world, was turning out to be about immigration, papers, borders, and the fate of the most vulnerable young people in a country. I knew that was a story I wanted to tell, but how?
I knew that Thailand has been governed by a military junta since 2014 and organizations devoted to protecting journalists had found the country increasingly oppressive. Imagine a writer from outside of the US recognizing that he needed to write about the issue of undocumented immigrants here and being confined to Presidential speeches and press releases approved by the White House. I realized that I needed the widest possible circle of sources. Through the good offices of Dr. Minjie Chen of the Cotsen Library at Princeton I found three Thai readers who scoured print and digital sources, social networks as well published texts, to answer my every question. Dr. Andrew Alan Johnson of Princeton added his expert knowledge. Dr. Chen herself did the same for reports in the Chinese press. David Jacobson, whom I know from GLLI – the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative – followed suit in Japanese. Working with Diana Floegel and Bruce DuBoff, two doctoral students at Rutgers, and Dorothy Kelly, an academically trained neighbor and friend, I then reached out to as many of the rescuers as possible. By the time I collected all of my contacts, I had reports from Spanish, Belgian, Danish, Australian, US, British, Chinese, Japanese, and a wide variety of Thai sources.
Through contacts I tried to get to speak to the boys. There were promising rumbles but ultimately silence. How could I add the team’s voices to the book? Here is where having Thai readers proved crucial. After they were out of the cave the boys and their coach gave a lengthy – though carefully managed – press conference. The English media selected a few highlights. My Thai readers translated every word. Now, I could describe their experiences in the cave in their own words.
The other crucial missing voice was that of the British divers who actually swam the team out of the cave. The entire media world was at their door and the handlers who were managing the requests were not encouraging. In our quest for experts on cave diving, Bruce, who has 25 years’ experience as a middle school librarian, reached out to William Stone. Stone is an accomplished scientist, cave diver, and cave rescuer. He is also most generous – and gave me a way to reach Rick Stanton. Rick and John Volanthen were the first to reach the team, and led the rescue effort. Rick agreed to an interview, which was the greatest thrill, and allowed me to see the crucial moments in the cave through his eyes.
Think back to that moment which so many of us saw on TV: Rick and John swimming in the dark, filming. They realize they have found the boys.
John: “How many of you?”
Rick: “They’re all alive” – he had counted as the skeletal boys came around the curve of the sandy mound and down to the water’s edge.
“Thirteen” answered fourteen-year-old Adul.
Adul answered. Not Night, the oldest. Not Ek, the assistant coach. Adul, one of the stateless players, answered because, as a child without a country, living in peril, he had devoted himself to soccer and to study. He speaks Burmese, Wa (the language of his ethnic group), Chinese, Thai, and English.
In that moment, that precious moment of contact a mile and half deep in a pitch black, treacherous cave, all borders disappeared. And, as the Danish diver Ivan Karadzic told me, that is what all the rescuers felt during the anxious days as they brought the boys out. This was the world at its best: the US military working closely with the Chinese, Palestinian and Israeli volunteers, Thai Muslim birds’ nest hunters and Japanese irrigation experts, Thai farmers, Navy SEALs, middle school students who agreed to test out the equipment the boys would have to use in the cave, the firm and wise governor Narongsak Osottanakorn, all listening to one another, aiding one another, working together.
Karadzic felt the rescue as a kind of “mirror” of what the world should be, must be. That’s what I tried to capture in the book that began where Africa and Eurasia met: an image of what is possible when our only concern is our common humanity.
Note: Marc sent this piece to Fernando Raigal, the Spanish diver who helped in the rescue and the man Marc quotes in the book. His response:
“I fully agree with Ivan’s words, what happened there was exactly how the world should be: listening and helping each other, doing our very best only.”
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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