Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Story of Survival

From international Federation of Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies "Stories of Survival" feature issue.

During the 6.8 magnitude earthquake which devastated Algeria in May 2003, Adlene Melkoo, a 24 years old Algerian Red Crescent volunteer, worked with his bare hands to drag out people buried under tons of rubble. Removing dead bodies day in day out and knowing that more lives could have been saved took a great emotional toll on him.

"Normally, I work part time as a garbage collector on the night shift, so I am used to checking what's on the ground. This time, the ground was covered with bodies, blood and limbs. Brand new buildings crumbled like biscuits. Those that date from the French period didn't budge an inch, and some of them are 150 years old. Some modern-day builders bear a terrible responsibility.

Not that long ago, I was assisting in rescue efforts in Reghaya, a small town near the capital Algiers, when we heard a noise from the rubble of what was a ten-storey building. With just our hands as tools, we removed the rubble stone by stone. Each minute counted. We didn't know if we were digging the right direction. The voices were either too low or covered by the screams of anxious relatives.

And we found a mother and her two sons. The mother was dead, the boys alive. It was the most beautiful and the saddest moment I ever experienced. The mother had been holding her two children when the wall collapsed on her back. Her body protected her sons. We pulled out the boys. They were crying, traumatized, and didn't understand why their mother was sleeping and not answering their calls.

It was too late when we reached her.

The faces of Ahmed, 5, Melek, 7, and their dead mother come back to my dreams every night. The shouts of these children and the fear I had of reaching them too late make my breathing heavier and my nights darker.

Before handing over the boys to their father, I held them in my arms to make sure that they were really alive. A huge wave of happiness instantly invaded my soul, replacing the sadness I had been feeling since I pulled out the dead body of an 11-year-old girl from the rubble in Boumerdes, 50 km east of Algiers. We heard her screams. She managed to tell us her name: Sabina. But it was too late when we reached her.

Today noise is an essential element in my life. I need to be where there is the buzz of people; it's my way to forget how many friends I lost. I also need to forget that in Ain Taya hospital I had to step on bodies lined up on the floor because there was no place to walk.

Who to blame? Nature? The government? The lack of preparedness? The huge traffic jams which caused delays as distressed relatives flocked to the disaster area? Or the power shortages that hampered the rescue efforts? Whatever: the death toll has risen above 2,200, with more than 10,000 injured.

Before the earthquake, I thought that my salary was the only thing that mattered. Today I don't think about money any more. I think about things that could help me forget the sadness I've been through. But I have the most precious gift: the joy of rescuing Ahmed and Melek".