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Democratic Republic of the Congo: at the scene of Kisangani crash

29-07-2011 Interview

Over 70 people were killed and a further 47 injured when a plane crashed on 8 July near Kisangani airport. Aubin Omalokoho Lopaka is in charge of disaster management at the Kisangani office of the Red Cross Society of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He played a pivotal role in response to the tragedy and describes the Society's activities in the aftermath.

Can you describe the first few hours of the relief operations?

As soon as we learned of the crash, we sent Red Cross workers to the scene. Other organizations such as Médecins sans frontières were also involved. Over 100 of our volunteers were divided into teams. The first thing we did was to take the injured to hospitals in Kisangani city, which is 17 km from the airport.

How did the National Society help the victims’ families?

It was a very painful time for the families. We did what we could to help them through the identification process.

The mortal remains were transferred to the morgue, where our people registered the families who were looking for bodies of relatives and gathered information from them which would help with identification. It was sometimes difficult to recognize the bodies, and this added to the anxiety of the people who had come to search for a family member. We took photographs to facilitate the process.

The volunteers evacuated over 70 bodies. Almost 30 bodies were identified and taken away by family members, and 42 were buried on the site dedicated to the crash victims, just a few yards from the provincial Red Cross office. Our volunteers worked extremely hard and with great commitment.

Is it common for the Congolese Red Cross to manage mortal remains?

Yes, it is, and our people are trained for it. When circumstances permit, they're the ones who handle this task in the wake of disasters such as landslides, volcanic eruptions and large-scale accidents. The Red Cross immediately goes to the scene to give first aid to survivors and take them to hospital. We also gather bodies and facilitate their identification, place them in coffins and, if no relatives can be located, even bury them.

How do the National Society and the ICRC work together?

The tasks carried out by the two organizations are complementary. In the case of the air crash, ICRC vehicles worked late into the night taking survivors to hospital and taking the bodies to the morgue. Since our supplies were inadequate, the ICRC provided us with material and equipment so that we could respond effectively.

How do you feel about your work as a first-aider?

Since I'm one of the first people to arrive at the scene of an emergency, I witness the distress of the people who are already there but don’t know how or where to begin to help. What’s more, it isn’t always easy to search the bodies of victims to identify them. But I'm proud to save some lives and to help people's families.

It’s the work that I've chosen to do, but I prefer to see it as a calling. Otherwise the things I see would be too hard to take. I've been a volunteer first-aid worker since 1983, and in all situations my strength and determination have been sustained by what I would call "love thy neighbour".


Photos

 

Aubin Omalokoho Lopaka of the Congolese Red Cross played a key role on 8 July and the days that followed.
© ICRC

 

Kisangani. The wrecked aircraft.
© ICRC

 

Kisangani. Over 100 Red Cross volunteers swung into action after the crash, mainly to recover bodies. This photo shows volunteers placing the bodies of victims in coffins at the morgue after cleaning them.
© ICRC