It was the 26th of December, 2004. I was playing with my children and the Christmas presents that they had just received. The festive season was, at last, an opportunity to spend some time with my family. I needed it, as did they. I am one of the supervisors of the Crisis Centre at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 2004 was a difficult year. It started particularly badly for our compatriots with the plane crash near Sharm el-Sheikh which killed 148people, including 134 French nationals. We also had to cope with two journalists being taken hostage in Iraq in late summer. Then in November, the evacuation of the French community from Côte d’Ivoire was a very tense period, for the Crisis Centre had never organized the evacuation of so many people – nearly 10,000.
It was still early that morning when my duty phone rang. Disaster had struck in Asia. There had been an earthquake measuring 9.5 on the Richter scale off the coast of Sumatra, then a devastating tsunami had struck Indonesia, the coast of Sri Lanka, southern India and the west coast of Thailand with unprecedented force.
The Ministry and its diplomatic network took immediate action
Within the hour, the crisis unit had been opened and all media were sent the help line on which the public could call the Ministry to provide and obtain information on any family members or friends in the vast area that was affected. As soon as the help line number was published and broadcast on television and radio, the phones began to ring and our response capacity very quickly reached its limits.
We had to act fast: mobilize more volunteers, obtain and set up additional phones and computers, and find enough space for the entire system. At the same time, we also had to gather the most useful and precise information possible in order to locate the victims, help them and respond to all those who were anxiously calling the help line as best we could. Lastly, we also had to send teams into the field and provide assistance in the affected areas.
Everything was urgent and nothing could be left to chance
All of the departments sprang into action. A large number of volunteers arrived and the IT department set up computers and phones wherever it could. We moved into the areas usually used by the Minister and his private office; the meeting rooms, reception rooms and private function rooms were all requisitioned. During the busiest period, there were over 650 ministerial officials and nearly 40volunteers from the French Red Cross working in the crisis unit.
Everyone was briefed on arrival and knew what they had to do. Some were answering the phone and contacting victims’ friends and families. Others were processing the information that had been gathered. Others still were organizing rescue missions and support for our embassies in the region, liaising constantly with the latter and coordinating all action being carried out on the ground. All our colleagues in the embassies concerned had also been mobilized as soon as the disaster struck.
The priority: finding out information
In the first few days, we had little information. It was difficult to answer the requests that we received. We were extremely anxious, as were the families, and grew more so as time went on. All our means of communication with people on the ground were cut off, yet we had to obtain as much information as possible. It was a race against time.
The first teams arrived on the ground to help our compatriots. Several groups of volunteers were sent to cover a vast area. Their tasks were to help the embassies manage the crisis, assist the victims, count and identify the victims, and provide information to the crisis unit so that it could respond to the families in distress.
When they arrived in the region, all our teams were confronted with total disorganization. They had to improvise, seeking information where it could be found, and visiting hospitals and any places were our compatriots could be; they also had to find somewhere to base themselves, where they could receive anyone wishing to contact us, and organize missions to help people, whatever their nationality.
The clock was ticking, people were growing increasingly anxious and we had to manage the tension, stress and fear of failing to reach many of the isolated victims in time. Families were torn apart and unable to find out what had happened to each other. We were therefore working to reunite family members who had been scattered by the events. We found many children and couples who had been separated. Alone, our teams were unable to manage, despite their commitment and professionalism. This meant that we had to organize coordination and sharing of information with all other partners on the ground. By doing so, we were able to find many more people who were being taken care of by other embassies.
The spider’s web strategy: gathering and cross-checking information
In Paris, there were endless meetings, during which we reflected on all possible ways of gaining information and cross-checking it with the unverified information that we already had. We asked mobile phone operators to use their customer records and send a message to those who may be located in the affected regions, asking them to call their families. Although certain mobile phone networks were no longer operational, the result was immediate and even surpassed our predictions. Many people called us to say that they had heard from their relatives and to tell us where they were and what they needed. That way, we were able to locate a large number of people and dispatch teams of diplomats and medical staff to assist them.
The teams answering the phones worked in three-hour shifts and each new team was briefed in detail so that each person could decide whether he or she felt able to answer the phone in such a tense, grave situation. We also set up an email response system. We had to help, take urgent action, make dozens of decisions, and provide people with the correct information. This work lasted several weeks. It was heavy-going and exhausting.
In fact, as time went on, we gathered a lot of information. We were gradually able to confirm that certain people were missing or dead. We had gathered eyewitness accounts and detailed information on the desperate situation of several dozen people. Everything was based on the research carried out by teams on the ground, the 200,000 phone calls that were handled and the 100,000 emails received by the Crisis Unit in Paris. By analysing all this information thoroughly, we were able to identify 96French victims. We then had to inform each family. In painful moments such as those, we had to pass on the information as carefully and compassionately as possible. Above all, we had to support each family member through the difficult process of mourning and recovery, for many victims had not been found and some still had to be forensically identified.
In this time of suffering for so many families, ten years after that disaster that shocked the world by its sheer scale, my thoughts are with the victims and their families and loved ones. We did all that we possibly could. We pushed ourselves to the limits in order to fulfil our mission. For this reason, we should also pay tribute to the exceptional volunteers, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris, at the embassies and on the ground; without them, we would never have succeeded. I humbly express my deepest gratitude to them. Everything relied on their extraordinary commitment, which was essential in order to help as many people as possible.