le 12 Mars 2005 à 11:35
This text comes from an article I wrote for the thai magazine Hyde Park. The text summarize my volunteer experience in the temple of Yan Yao, where until february, more than 2500 bodies were stocked.
Enjoy your reading.
Working for dead peoples
a volunteer experience In Takuapa, south of Thailand.
(12-01-2005 to 18-01-2005)
It was almost 6 o'clock in the morning when I finally reached Wat Yan Yao. In front of the temple, many chairs and tents were facing the road. A board was full of photos of missing persons, when on the other side of the road, another one was displaying photos of corpses with their black faces, no eyes and completely decomposed. Under the press section, one man was sleeping behind a wall of tables. The main door was wide open, and nobody was here to stop me. Inside, neon lights were setting up the place: tents, trucks, empty coffee cups and various signs. In the back, some shadows of volunteers were starting to move around. The odour arising out of the bodies was present wherever I went, was getting weaker out of the temple but still impossible to avoid it. On the concrete ground, a row of containers was spreading out next to the door. The corpses were here.
I worked in Yan Yao for one week and was assigned to do many jobs. In fact the temple was completely in lack of organizers. The only ones available were too busy with the authorities to have time for the volunteer coming. The volunteer were waiting the reception office to call for jobs. My first job was to carry body bags and I get it instantly. Indeed, it was one of the works the reception office had never enough volunteers for.
I had to access the "twilight zone", the area where the bodies were stored and analyzed. Only assigned workers were allowed and the decontamination team provided a special suit: a plastic suit, 2 layers of gloves, 2 masks and a big smile. Everybody was in white or blue, with names and countries written in the back, like a surrealist team going out from a Science-Fiction movie. Under a tree, doctors and assistants were checking corpses displayed on a table, taking DNA samples and photos of the dentition (another way to identify a body). A bit further, many young soldiers were aligning some block of 'dry' ice on the ground to prevent bodies to rotten worse. A truck came and I helped the other soldiers to carry the bodies out and to display them on the ground. 1 worker was needed to carry a child corpse, 2 for a light body, 3 to 5 for a big one.
Working with the families was far more difficult, because it asked special diplomatic skills. I was in charge for 5 days of helping the foreign families at the photo identification desk,. As the DNA results were not ready yet, many families were coming everyday to check the photos of corpses. My task was to help the foreigners to look for their missing relatives. Thus I had to look with them through the photos stored on the computer. Usually when the bodies had tattoos, rings or any details, the research was faster. But in some cases, when the missing persons had nothing on them or no special belongings sometimes, it could take 6 hours to see the whole files (more than 2500 corpses in the database) and not find anything.
If finally, the relatives could recognize the body through the photos, another game was to find where the body was in the temple. As the foreign police and the soldiers changed the procedures set up by Ms. Pornthip, they had brought confusion in most of the services, especially concerning foreigners. The foreigner bodies had moved in other containers and the Thai reference present on my computer was thus obsolete. The only ones who had the information and were in charge of the foreign corpses were the foreign policemen. I had to wait hours in front of their office to have answers because they were very busy. The main problem is that I was working for a Thai office and they didn't trust me (even if the families were beside me. In some case, they didn't know where the bodies were and they didn't want to look for it. The only thing they were keeping on saying was to wait for the DNA tests. Therefore, I had to control the anger of the discouraged families who had spent so much time on the computer for no results.
A few days later, by meting many people in the camp, I started to have good relations with key persons of Yan Yao. It helped me to solve some cases because they could manage more easily the foreign police than I did. Anyway, most of the time the bodies were not found or had not been checked. For the Thai relatives, it was completely different, they only had to deal with the Thai authorities and in 30 % of the case they could recognize the body. The relatives who came to pick-up the body were then photographed and added to the folder of the victim.
During my last day of work, the camp was in effervescence: they were waiting for what the Thai authorities decisions: Finally the policemen replaced the soldiers, restricting a bit more the access to the temple. The foreigner volunteers were less and less needed and were leaving the camp. Pornthip and some doctors were still active, not ready to give up their jobs like this to the police. Some high-ranking volunteers tried to keep me, but it was too late. I had my duties in Bangkok and I had already trained someone to replace me. That day, every corpse had a place in a container, and was not standing outside. I went back home.