Our team decided to go to Phuket on "day two" of
the disaster (we all live in Lopburi, about a thousand kilometres north of Phuket).
We were issued with free plane tickets to get to the scene of devastation. On
arrival, like all the westerners, we thought at first that nothing was organized.
Initially we gave a helping hand at the airport, as a medical team and translators
working until late into the night. It was necessary to help the masses of injured
survivors before their transferral to Bangkok. Most of them had already received
basic care and had their x-rays or diagnoses with them. Infections too had often
already been brought under control by the best antibiotics.
The day following our arrival we decided to go to several local hospitals around Phuket, Taktua and its surroundings to see where we could be most useful. Everything was under control. Efficient doctors gently made us understand that we would probably be better employed elsewhere. So we went back to the airport to discover the army had taken over the entire organization with perfect efficiency and that we had become simply useless.
They even flew us back north in time for New Year's Eve! Our entire team was fascinated by the brilliant organization. None the less we gave our names in case we would be needed again. And, after New Year we were indeed asked to return to Tuktua to help with corpse identification. Again everything was organised impeccably: free plane tickets, free dormitory, free food, protective garments and spare clothes to change into after our filthy work was over at the end of the day. There was even free massage for those who wanted it!
The dry ice blocks spilt their white smoke day and night. At the beginning the blocks had been arranged randomly; some were even laid down right on top of the bodies. But when it was realized that the corpses could be disfigured in this way and that tattoos were fading away , we decided to place them more carefully between the bodies.
Then the organizers of our operation decided to build walls of about 60 centimetres high with the ice blocks, dividing the field of the deaths in zones each of around 50 bodies. This arrangement had a couple of advantages: firstly they kept those areas cold, much like the open fridges of supermarkets, and therefore slowed down the deterioration of the bodies. They also prevented the roaming hens that were audacious and greedy enough, from trying to peck the delicious worms that were emerging like white garlands, from the mouths, the eyes and the wounds of the corpses. The main disadvantage of these walls was simply the unpleasant smoke. But, what it did allow, particularly at night when we volunteers were rarer, was a daunting vision of what could be described as the "beauty of Hell".
Our team had been assigned the task of finding clues on the bodies that arrived by truck which could potentially be used for identification purposes. The smoke constantly disturbed us and diminished our goodwill. We resorted to makeshift cardboard fans which one person would flail about as another would attempt to go about his business. Our work was varied, we would take photographs of victims for reference purposes, cut and analyse clothing, recover garment labels and go through pockets. We would look for tattoos, possible bodypiercing, surgical scars, observe nail length or check for nail varnish. Sometimes we had to poke a finger into a corpse's mouth to analyse 'in situ' the jaw, dental apparatus and stumps of teeth. For this job it was actually a relief not to be able to see clearly.
One member of the team was required to keep his hands clean, for it was his job to fill in a form stating those details that the rest of us had discovered. Another had the mission of washing the bodies and filling small bags with samples of hair, clothing, bracelets or other bits and bobs. When we had to examine small children we chosen to remove their entire outfits, thinking that most mothers, if still alive, would recognize her child's clothing instantaneously and that it would less painful than if confronted with the rest of the corpse or photographs of it.
The task was incredibly arduous, with even the gender of the victims sometimes being far from obvious. Hence the need to work quickly' corpses were continuing to arrive all the time and with every hour that passed the identification became more difficult: garments were getting blacker and hair rarer, both eaten by putrefaction that occurs rapidly in tropical conditions. Accurate assessment of age was more uncertain still.
The most difficult however, tended to be the ascertaining of racial origin. Asian? European? Other? Blond hair if any remained presented no problem of course and comparing it with pubic hair would easily confirm racial origin. As for the others, well the Southeast Asian cheekbones tend to be higher; they might have less pubic hair, which is longer and less frizzy; their bones are thinner and they are less stout; some cultures are less likely than others to have tattoos, or their might be religious indicators or a typical garment for an area. The time pressure was intense and of course we made many mistakes, in both directions.
It seems that the issue of race was one that obsessed many of the teams of white "specialists" freshly arrived from the West who were capable of displaying an appalling arrogance and an awful contempt towards the Asian bodies, to such an extent that we were ashamed to be Westerners too. Those teams of "experts" added to their bad reputation the fact that they barely deigned to engage with the vile work of opening the bodybags for the initial identification. They would taking the already unpacked corpses that we had indicated to them, and were analysing them in their own zones that they had designated for western corpses only, then, after a few tests, they would store them in refrigerated containers. We overheard that those insensible 'experts" were forbidding Thais access to the containers. Thais who were thinking that one of their relatives could have mistakenly been put in one those containers, such an occurrence was highly probable, and a relative's identification may well be more reliable than ours.
The first difficulty of our work was to open the plastic body-bag
and extract the complete corpse out of it. The miasmas were simply unspeakable.
Sometimes it was necessary to interrupt work for a moment just to try and draw
breath. The worms, almost as disgusting as the stench, would at least try to
crawl back into the corpses as soon as they were exposed to air and light. Thus,
two or three minutes after first opening the bag, the examination was already
made less foul by this fact. We of course learnt by experience that it was most
sensible to open the bags in sets of ten, so as to allow the worms to burrow
before starting a more thorough examination.
We probably didn't have the most disgusting work in the management of the disaster. To recover the remnants of bodies from the mud or stagnant water was certainly a lot more laborious. The only advantage of that work, in comparison with ours, was that maybe they would be confronted with fewer corpses to deal with per one day. But I'm not convinced that is an advantage; the huge number of corpses we processed meant that we soon activated a "switch off" in our brains that allowed us to keep an emotional distance to the humanity of those that we examined. For our parts, we never saw a volunteer in the identification team stop working for reasons of disgust or psychological collapse. We didn't even see anyone vomiting.
Some teams tended to move towards more delicate missions, such as collecting DNA samples. That did not require the same proximity to the corpses: a quick cut into some leg muscle, pop a piece of flesh into a sachet and one can go on to the next corpse. Such work wouldn't require one to actually have to take the corpse out of its juices. Later, if the muscles are too decomposed, DNA teams would extract a bit of bone with a pair of pliers instead).
On one occasion a dead baby had been examined. After the DNA and the dentist-team had completed their examinations the baby was repacked in a new plastic bag, then moved and lined up with about a hundred other corpses. They were soon to be sent off for the normal final procedure for Asian bodies. We had to believe that this baby was Asian since the Western specialists either arrived too late or hadn't wanted to be involved in the disgusting identification tasks; they only analysed the corpses which were handed over to them by us as "probably Western corpse". A block of dry ice was put between the baby's body and another corpse, in the process block squashed it a little and the baby moaned for a few seconds Panic! Horror! The Thai volunteer who had deposited the dry ice started all sorts of apologies and 'wai-ed' to the baby (to ask for forgiveness for having touched it irreverently) We finally calmed the Thai down and prevented him from opening the bag, explaining that it was not uncommon that gas, looking for exits in such bodies, leaves it through the mouth whilst tickling the vocal cords. It was late in the evening, but the following day we and the same Thai were back at work, and in spite of all, were now able to laugh about the anecdote.
There are plenty of anecdotes which will remain engraved in our memories as long as we live. And it isn't always the horror stories that stay with us. All of us, a little tense from our exertions and the mysterious ambience of the place, were easy victims to nervous laughter: There was a body of a sturdy chap, belong to someone who, to judge by appearances was of little brain and big muscles. The sort we imagined would have strutted down the street trying to seduce pretty girls. Before undressing him, we brushed the dirt off his T-shirt to see if there might be some kind of logo to aid his identification. On uncovering his shirt, our response was in unison, an explosion of laughter. Of course we were ashamed, but we were unable to control ourselves when we saw the words in plain English, 'NIRVANA IS HERE' and in smaller letters beneath, 'Friday the 13th'
In terms of risks to the volunteers' health, there was, in our skilled medical opinion, not much. All this rot was being caused by anaerobic germs which present no problem to a healthy human with sufficiently oxygenated blood circulating. We would have in fact been presented with greater danger had we been working on a hospital ward of a normal Thai hospital, where one patient might pass on a pneumococci whilst another might splutter tuberculosis.
The real danger is a psychological one. I have mentioned the brain's facility to 'switch off' in such difficult circumstances. I'm not referring here to the possibility of volunteers suffering from madness or post-traumatic stress. I'm talking of how one can lose the ability to respect corpses. We became aware of this by observing a western doctor from a DNA team. His behaviour was so extreme that a colleague of mine, as she pointed him out said, "Never in my life would I like to be touched by such a man." The doctor was pulling the thighbone out of a small boy as one might take out a bone from an over-cooked chicken. With the bone in one hand, he began with the help of a machete in his other to chop frantically at the bone, shards flying everywhere, to extract a sample for testing. But his manner had something hysterical in it, there was something of the butcher in him, this man's symptoms were reminiscent of 'war madness' .
Another potential danger are the nightmares that sometimes haunt volunteers even after they have left a place. On this issue however, our team, was rather well protected; we had been working together for several years in a Thai hospice for terminal AIDS patients and were used to dealing with one or two deaths per day. The experiences from that hospice have allowed us to affirm that it is a lot more difficult, although the media wants us to believe the opposite, to take care of dying people than to examine the bodies of those we don't know anything about, not even their past beauty. It is a difficulty that arises with the knowledge of a name, a voice, the witnessing of the pain of someone with whom we have some basis of a relationship
Generally, the atmosphere in the 'camps of death' of Yanyao
was good. Humour and smiles were never lacking. We would like to pay tribute
to those Thai volunteers who after several days working there were still touching
the corpses with a "wai" (hands folded, prayer-like) and which expressed
the deepness of their respect for the victims. And all these Thais never made
any racial distinctions.
One outstanding member of the camp community was the famous Dr. Porntip, the woman is a miracle. She was able to be everywhere at onece, always smiling, helping patiently those who were lost or confused. Despite the enormity of her task, the scale of the tragedy and the unpredictable nature of events, she managed to organize the heirachy with remarkable aptitude. She made optimal use of a small area in which to order the bodies, had a typically Thai sharp memory which she used systematically, calmly confident of the goodwill of the volunteers she managed the situation beautifully. I can't imagine such a performance in Europe with so little financial support. We were all certain of it, yet Thailand has also never experience a disaster of such magnitude.
Finally our team would like to have the audacity to say thank you to the Thai people.
Beyond this enormous tragedy everyone remained human, very human, very very human.
We thank you, our Thai friends, for your politeness and humanity and for the expertise that you put at the disposal of our victims. (To burn them would have been easier but you accepted our strange requests not to do so )
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