Monday, January 17, 2005

Scientology Volunteer Minister - First Hand Account of "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 grandpa 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 part of Thailand). A friend of mine said her bed shook 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 of 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 (Scientology organization designed to bring help and order in situations of crisis) actions. I had read about them, I had seen videos about them, and now it was time for me to join them. 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 Phuket 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, mounds 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. Phuket 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 rafters 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 Phuket which sustained one of the largest hits in Thailand. Phuket had been the center of all attention, and Pang Nga had gotten none. Complete confusion.

The ship in the background was carried more than a half mile by the tsunami and dumped here in the woods. Posted by Hello

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 said to go to the nearest Wat (temple) and help with the bodies. There were trucks of them heading there. We didn't need any directions to the place, so strong was the stench of the rotting corpses. We arrived at nightfall. The entrance, 1 container, 2 military trucks, a few doctors and a thousand bodies lying on the bare ground, with no clothes on.

I spent the first night carrying supplies, and then bodies. Bodies were full of water and weighted from 100 kg up, with some closer to 250 kg. Worms crawled in all directions and the floor was covered with an inch thick of body fluids 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 whimps.

Someone had to take on getting the corpses identified, and that was the first job we did. Posted by Hello

During the next days I set up refrigerated containers to preserve the bodies, planning the space and positioning, directing the crane and teaching soldiers how to get those 6 tons of weight 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 organizing the place, setting up an information booths with loud speakers, creating the basic organization 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 different countries. I was busy - getting the containers up and running and was soon nicknamed Mr. Container.

With the help of the soldiers we built a whole city of containers, and hundreds of shelves to extend their capacity. Dead bodies were still coming in by the truckload. And when in doubt, all they had to do was to ask a yellow jacket (Scientology Volunteer Ministers wear yellow jackets). 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 from miles away because word was out that this was they only place they really had a chance to identify their relatives and be taken care of. Containers were available, giving a chance to preserve bodies for autopsy; routines 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 gruesome casualties. And in just 12 days, we won. There is still a lot of work to be done, but the place is now organized to do it, and the infrastructure is up and running. It was the most horrific experience in my life, but also one that I will keep in my heart. For in the years to come I will look back with the knowledge that I was there, and did something about it. We did make a difference when and where it was needed most.

- Sylvain Galibert

The Executive Director of the Scientology Mission of Bangkok helped direct relief efforts. Posted by Hello