Je prends la liberté de coller le compte rendu de Sylver.
J'ai pas vraiment le temps de gratter quelque chose là dessus maintenant, mais, à la fin des douze premiers jours, j'avais rédigé un petit texte (en anglais malheureusement) pour raconter ce qui s'était passé. Les choses ont beaucoup changé, depuis les premiers jours, et mon boulot actuel est totalement différent (Je m'occupe maintenant de faire des enquêtes sur les conditions de vie des réfugiés), mais j'aimerais quand même partager ces 12 premiers jours, tout au moins, avec ceux qui parlent anglais.
12 days of war
It's said that times of war are the toughest. Dead bodies lying around, chaos is everywhere, organization is a long forgotten word and the only way to survive is wear your courage on your face, forget your weariness and pain, and rush into action.
I was too young to know what war felt like. WW2 is a thing my grand-pa told me about and Iraq was thousands of miles away. However I have just been through 12 days of war.
When the Tsunami hit, I was sound asleep in my home, in Chiang Mai (North of Thailand). A friend of mine said her bed shacked during the night. As for me, nothing short of a bomb could have disturbed my sleep. I was getting ready for my morning jog, casually glancing at my emails, and one of them caught my attention. It was from a pal of mine and just said "Are you OK?"
I read on to find out the coast had been washed away by a tidal wave. I had been there not even 10 days before. I had friends there...none of them answered the phone. Doesn't mean anything, because the land lines were certainly not operational. I hoped it was just that, because they lived a couple feet away from the beach. The whole thing felt unreal, in that bright morning light, but one thing was sure. I had to do something, and I had to do it now.
I packed my bags and enquired about volunteer ministers* actions. I knew there would be some on the ground, and that's where I belonged. All flights were booked that day, save for the last one, so I met the team in Bangkok around 1 am for a briefing. We already had guys on the ground and the scene looked gloomy. The whole coast was in chaos. At the height of the high season, the place was full of tourists, mostly packed in hotels or bungalows right on the coast. Thousands had died and the bodies were still coming back from the Sea. Patong beach (Phucket) had been cleaned up, and yet the next morning, over 300 bodies were found, brought back by the sea.
What difference could we make?
Whatever, we had to give it a try and do our best. We got to Phucket and headed straight to the headquarters. The place was buzzing, people moving around in all directions, missing persons paper posted on the walls, piles of water bottles, mounts of second hand clothes, and some people offering accommodations for survivors. Something was amazing about the place. People had gotten together to help and there was some hope around. They sure had amazing resilience. You will never know how much strength there is in man until you get through such times. Phucket was the center of all attention and help, and as amazing as that may sound, the situation was getting under control. People had food to eat, places to sleep, clothes, and those crying in search for their loved ones were taken care of.
The hospitals were full to the rafts but otherwise doing OK. We went in and gave assistance for a day with good results, helping to translate, helping the patients and relatives, organizing a bit. Tough, but not too tough. Those guys were in bed, had medical assistance, and they had made it through. All in all, based on the circumstances, things were not as bad as I feared.
On the other end of the scale however was Pang Nga, a province just North of Phucket which sustained one of the largest hits in Thailand. Phucket had been the center of all attention, and Pang Nga had gotten none. Complete confusion. The head of the departmental rescue team didn't have a clue what to do and ended up on the roads handling the car traffic. Rescue workers were hell bent on recovering bodies from the wrecked sea coast, mostly coming down from a small resort town call Khao Lak. I had lived there about a year ago, but hardly could recognize the place. Of my then resort only 2 walls remained. Cars laid in weird places and looked like they had been through a compactor. All the bodies recovered were brought to the nearest standing town, a place called Takua Pa, and piled up in the back of the city's 3 Wats (Temples).
We headed straight for the mayor and told him we were here to help. He looked wondering past our faces. He had heard that sentence before but didn't seem to take it seriously. However we insisted and he said that if we really wanted to help, we had to go to the nearest Wat and help with the bodies. There were trucks of them heading there. We didn't need no directions to the place, so strong was the stench of the rotting corpses. We arrived at night fall. The entrance, 1 container, 2 military trucks, a few doctors and a thousand bodies lying bare on the ground, with no clothes on. Once again we offered our help but they didn't seem thrilled. 2 guys and 2 girls in yellow jackets. What could we do? They had 300 soldiers, some doctors, and 3 times as many bodies. They didn't know us, but they didn't know what to do either so we took responsibility for the situation.
I spent the first night carrying supplies, and then bodies with soldiers. Bodies were full of water and weighted from 100 kg up, with many closer to 250 kg. Worms crawled in all directions and the floor was covered with an inch thick of slime, body fat, blood and sea water. For the first time of my life I was faced with the reality of war, for it was a war.
Carrying each body took a minimum of 6 guys and none of us were wimps. Soldiers were strong but lacked initiative and drive, and I soon found myself running the show, pushing them to move, forcing them to pick up the rhythm and carry on. Outside the body arena, the other VMs had come to the same realization. We had to run the place and organize it, because no one else was going to do it. Around 4 am, soldiers went to sleep. The person in charge was about to leave until the next evening and told us to replace her. Within a few hours, we had gone from complete strangers to trusted executives, and that trust was met with an abundance of production.
During the next days I set up refrigerated containers to preserve the bodies, planning the space and positioning, directing the cranes and teaching soldiers how to get those 6 tons buggers in place. Not that I knew anything about it to start with, but nobody else was there so I just had to do it, and I did. Containers got in place against all odds, got wired, cranked up and running. Meanwhile the rest of the VMs were setting up the lines and organizing the place, setting up an information booth with loud speakers, creating routing forms** to help people identify their relatives, setting up DNA testing lines in front of the Wat, organizing supply lines and coordinating with the different teams that started to arrive on the scene, including forensic MDs from the different countries. I was flat out on getting the containers up and running and was soon nicknamed Mr. Container.
Soldiers looked up to me for command and started snapping heels as I passed them. Strangely it felt natural. I add become one of their officers de facto. With them, I built a whole city of containers, and hundreds of shelves to extend their capacity. Dead bodies were still coming in by the truckload, but we were putting order in the place and people started to know what to do. And when in doubt, all they had to do was to ask a yellow jacket*. When the minister of health and other government officials showed up to inspect a few days later, the place was running like a well greased engine. People would come in from miles away because word was out that this was they only place they really had a chance to identify their relatives and otherwise be taken care of. The other 2 temples, in contrast, had barely anything going on, just bodies, and our place became the center of the action. At then end, other temples just routed their bodies to ours, our place being organized enough to handle it. Containers were available, giving a chance to preserve bodies for autopsy, lines were set up to allow for DNA testing, and anything the forensic doctors needed was gotten or made on the spot.
As more and more VMs arrived, we further extended our responsibilities to helping workers handle stress and exhaustion using Scientology assists, helping the victims’ relatives get back on their feet, organizing the distribution of the supplies to the victims in remote area (large volumes of supplies were available, but not distributed to anyone for lack of organization).
Yes, it really felt like a war. A war against chaos and horror, and human misery. A war with no gunshots but omnipresent casualties. And in just 12 days, we won. There is still a lot of job to be done, but the place is now organized to do it, and the infrastructure is up and running. It was the most gruesome experience in my life, but also one I will keep in my heart. Years from now, I will look back and smile.
Because we DID make a difference when and where it was the most needed.
*Scientology organization designed to bring help and order in situations of crisis. Scientology Volonteer Ministers wear yellow jackets or armbands
** A routing form is a form listing all the steps that need to be done in order to get a product. In the case, the person looking for a relative had to identify himself/herself, provide all avalaible data on the relative, distinguishing signs, where last seen,… provide DNA sample for matching purposes,…
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