Caves capture the imagination like no other feature of the natural world, perhaps because they tap into our deepest, atavistic fears of darkness—and our insatiable curiosity for the unknown. From Plato using the “allegory of the cave” to depict the human condition to Gollum lurking in subterranean streams, the archetype of the cave is so ingrained in our cultures that most of us can imagine what it feels to be trapped inside one.
It comes as no surprise, then, that when the news of a young football team lost in a cave in Northern Thailand emerged on June 23—just as the World Cup was going underway—it instantly gripped the world's attention. Similar such incidents also made headlines, as in 2010, when 33 miners were trapped in a northern Chilean copper mine and rescued after an incredible 69 days underground. What made the Thai story compelling, moreover, was the fact that most of the protagonists were children. In a world of discrimination and prejudice, children are among the few categories of people that still enjoy the presumption of innocence. Indeed, at a time when we celebrate the beautiful game of football, the thought of those youngsters who should be watching Kylian Mbappé's dazzling moves instead of battling for survival rightfully drew widespread sympathy.
The international response to the incident was swift, with various countries and individuals pitching in the search and rescue effort. Hampered by heavy rains and floods, the first week was marked by slow progress, and no sign of the missing team. But just when people were beginning to expect the worst, came the miracle: On the ninth day, all 12 boys, aged 11 to 17, and their 25-year-old coach were found alive.
Yet there remained the conundrum of how to get them out safely. Caves, after all, are fraught with danger: In a retrospective study done in 2012, researchers found that there were an average of three caving-related deaths in the United States alone, and many of them due to falls and drowning. Lack of oxygen is an additional peril in Tham Luang cave; that Saman Gunan, a former Thai Navy officer, died inside the cave while delivering air tanks underscored the risks of the entire operation.
Great was our relief and joy, then, when the daring rescue succeeded. One by one, the kids emerged from the cave safely, with the last person—the coach—seeing the light on Tuesday, 17 days after they entered. What could have been a tragedy became, instead, a story of success built on trust, teamwork, solidarity and sacrifice.
At the beginning, we did not know who the 12 boys were, although now we know that many of them are poor, and some belong to stateless ethnic minorities. Neither did we know who their coach was, although now we know that Ekapol Chanthawong was orphaned at a young age, grew up in a monastery, and treated the boys like his own family.
Regardless of their backgrounds, however, the world came to their aid. And when the news emerged of their discovery and eventual rescue, the world rejoiced with them.
Surely, after the euphoria dies down, there will be other stories to provoke our emotions. Even as the rescue was unfolding, there were suicide bombings in Afghanistan; extrajudicial killings in the Philippines; thousands of children in the US-Mexico border still separated from their parents. Our capacity for empathy, however, is contingent on distance and desensitisation; only when the stories are new, extraordinary or close to our homes and hearts are we still moved.
Perhaps if children are trapped in caves everyday, we will not pay as much attention. Perhaps if people are trapped in slavery dens or refugee camps for the first time, such stories will make big headlines.
Even so, the children's rescue is an encouraging sign that, despite our differences, people remain capable of working together for a just cause, and that, in our postmodern age, there remains undebatable good that we can all rally behind. As we grapple with the darkness in our own world, may the young football team and their heroic rescuers remind us of a simple truth: People are worth saving simply because their lives matter.
Gideon Lasco, MD, PhD is a physician, medical anthropologist, and writer from the Philippines. His Twitter handle is @gideonlasco.
Copyright: Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network