Czech rescue workers in Algiers

Czech rescue team

The earthquake which hit northern Algiers in May of this year killed over 1,000 people and injured over 7,000. The Czech Republic was one of many states which sent a rescue team to the site of the disaster. Two Czech resue workers who were there tell their story in this week's Magazine

A Prague fire brigade there called into action. On average these boys respond to seven calls a day and they are out on the road within just one minute of the emergency call. We were at the scene of the fire within seven minutes -despite the heavy morning traffic and the fact that Prague drivers are not always considerate in giving right of way to fire brigades and ambulances. A fire in a fourth storey flat, empty save for two family dogs who were barking the place down. Luckily someone reported the column of smoke early and there was only material damage.

What seemed a high adrenalin situation to me was a minor incident in a day's work to these boys. The reason I chose this particular fire brigade was because its members are part of the national rescue team which is sent to help deal with natural disasters around the world. Just a few weeks ago they returned from Algiers where they helped to deal with the devastation wrought by the earthquake that hit northern Algiers in May. Pavel Peceny and Jirka Kubes recall how the team / 9 rescue workers, 3 people with trained dogs and a doctor/ arrived in a town close to Bumirdis, near the epicentre of the quake, 28 hours after the tragedy struck :

What we saw was a scene of devastation, collapsed buildings, and complete chaos. There were people -hundreds, possibly thousands of people- sifting through the debris like ants, desperately trying to locate lost family and friends.

They had almost no equipment and most of them were using their bare hands to dig. The women were standing aside but the male population -from small boys to old men -were trying to move the piles of concrete, shouting down cracks and trying to get a response. Many were bloodied, some were bandaged and they wouldn't stop digging. It took a great deal of effort for us to convince them that it was wiser to let us take over. They seemed to have no previous experience with rescue teams and sniffer dogs but when they saw how quickly the dogs found victims they were suddenly cooperative. All they wanted was not to be excluded from the rescue work so we gave them shovels and pickaxes and let them help where it was possible. It was soon clear that the chances of finding anyone alive were very small but they were determined to retrieve their dead and give them a proper burial.

They say that the earthquake hit at dinnertime -and a proper family meal in the evening has a strong tradition in this part of the world, so most people were at home when it happened. And that made things so much worse. People did their best to save whom they could after the tragedy. There were some 900 injured in the area where we worked and most were pulled out from the rubble within minutes or hours after the first quake. The Polish and Australian teams who worked elsewhere did bring out a 12 year old girl -still alive after four days -but such cases were exceptional. Of course every rescue worker wants to find living survivors, but this time it just didn't happen for us. The area we were in was too badly hit. In some places three floors had been crushed together into a layer that could have been a metre and a half high. So there was nowhere for people to take cover. I guess it all depended on fate or luck or something -where a person was at the time, whether a small space remained for them to stay alive and how fast the rescue team got there.

From what the local people told us, they pretty much expect an earthquake to happen every twenty years. They had one in the 60s, one in the 80s, which they said was the worst of all, and one now. So there is a kind of resignation about it. Certainly the architecture is not the kind that would resist the force of a strong earthquake. But then we were in a fairly poor residential area so maybe that accounts for it. What struck me was that after the initial shock most people seemed to recover fairly quickly and went about doing whatever needed to be done. They just picked up the pieces, buried their dead and found the strength to carry on with their lives.

There were ambulances driving through and we saw some nurses at work but people would often come to our own doctor for treatment when they cut themselves or otherwise injured themselves while digging in the rubble. They all slept outside. Very few houses were left standing and many of them were leaning dangerously and would have to be pulled down anyway - so they just slept where they could. You'd see them sleeping in rows out in the open, eating together, helping one another. Children, babies, old people -everyone in the same rough conditions. Of course the high night temperatures helped, it was easy to sleep out with just a blanket under you.

Fifty degrees temperatures during the day are fairly hard for a Central European to take -much less work in, but the boys soon found that despite the heat they were expected to adhere to local custom.

We were digging in T shirts and shorts when this man rushed over to us and made it clear that that was unacceptable. "Not short, long!" he repeated, and stayed right there until we all changed into our work overalls. Even after work in our camp we had to stay covered because there were women in the vicinity. The only place you could wear shorts and a T shirt was inside your tent. But you get used to it after a while. Besides when you looked around at what these people were coping with then a pair of long trousers in the heat seemed like a very small hardship. They have their faith and their traditions and we were in their country after all.

We experienced something similar to a coup - the people were angry with the government for not doing enough for them. So when some politicians turned up to view the devastation a two thousand strong crowd gathered and people started shouting and throwing stones. There were some skirmishes and for a while we were protected by soldiers and police units while we worked. Not because the anger was directed against us - but because we could find ourselves in the middle of an incident. So we had orders to run for cover and lie low if stones started flying. But luckily things calmed down after a while.

There were occasions when someone would show up say once or twice a day with three to four cartons of bottled water and that would be it. On other days things would be better, but there was never enough water for all that was needed and when we opened a bottle there would always be dozens of hands stretched out for a drink. We gave them what we could spare because we had more than enough. They also tried to share their water and rations with us as a sign of gratitude for what we were doing -and we'd thank them and take it and then distribute it to the women and children close to our camp. To begin with they didn't have enough and we had plenty from home. And secondly the doctor on our team kept a strict eye on us - warning us not to try any local food which could cause problems and making sure we each drank over three litres of water a day.

When we finished our work they would come to slap us on the back and shake hands and say "Thank you in the name of the people of Algiers". When we walked down the street they would all know we were "the Czech team" and they were very friendly. We departed after five days and left all our spare rations and all our equipment there - for the locals to use. By that time the locals had picked up a lot by watching and helping us and they could put them to good use on their own. Many of them came over to say goodbye and thank us. There were times when there was tension in the air -like when we wouldn't allow them to dig where they wanted - or when they first saw the dogs - but in the end we got along well despite the language and cultural barriers. They would bow to us and they would touch their hearts - as if to say "thank you for helping".