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China always ready to lend a helping hand

By Li Dafei | China Daily | Updated: 2019-09-27 09:11

The author attending ad-hoc international response meeting in Phuket. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]

I hastily boarded the Singapore Air Force (SAF) helicopter with four other Chinese colleagues. As an attaché of the Political Section of the Chinese embassy in Thailand, I was leading a team of four Chinese forensic experts from the Beijing Institute of Genomics to a site in the Phang Nga Bay where the tsunami left the worst damage in Thailand.

The time: end of 2004, just a couple of days after the deadly tsunami ravaged not only Indonesia but also parts of Thailand. The macabre mission: to coordinate with local Thai authorities and incorporate the Chinese experts into the mix of Thai and international professionals, who would perform operations to collect DNA samples from bodies of victims, collectively placed in a temple ground.

There was only one SAF helicopter available to transport Chinese and other international teams from Phuket to the Phang Nga Bay temple. The forensic teams had to travel in batches. As the SAF bird was airborne, I saw the devastation below along the coastline. I had arrived in Phuket a day before, and was immediately given the job by my political counsellor to lead the team to the very front line.

About 40 minutes later, the Chinese team arrived at the temple. In the hot, humid weather and under the relentless tropical sun, thousands of bodies were laid on the ground in all tragic forms, already rotten or quickly rotting. New bodies were arriving in trucks in subsequent batches. Thai colleagues were constantly spraying disinfectant onto the bodies and around the compound. The foul smell of death and disinfectant only added up to the visual horror – in all, it was hell.

But, human spirit and dedication prevailed. The Chinese team quickly started work, pulling teeth or collecting other samples, after I handed over the Chinese experts to the New Zealand police commissioner, who was the head of the international response team on the ground, designated by the ad hoc international relief coordination meeting in Phuket.

We arrived in the early morning and the work continued the whole day. In the middle of the day, I picked up a phone call from an embassy colleague, informing me that a local Thai-Chinese businessperson was sending a driver to deliver food to the temple ground. The generous lunch arrived, and it included a lot of meat and vegetables, with white rice as the staple food. I had been watching the forensic experts operating on the dead bodies, with maggots fervently jumping out of bodies as well as rotten flesh holes in the legs or arms. As a result, my colleagues and I felt we could not eat rice.

The hectic work continued into the second day. My ambassador arrived from Bangkok in the late morning. He had heard about the horrific scene. He shook hands immediately when the colleagues took off their protective gloves. All throughout the inspection trip when talking with colleagues, the brave Chinese ambassador did not wear a protective facial mask, and he sent out clear, resolute messages of encouragement and gratitude.

As I look back on the field work in the Thai temple compound 15 years ago, images of the four resolute and dedicated Chinese professionals remain so vivid and lively: working with international colleagues amid thousands of corpses, using whatever crude tools were available at hand, such as a clip hanger to open up and hold steady the mouth while maggots madly jumped out and around. All through the years I remain proud of bearing witness to a tremendous China story, of being part of history, and of making history by doing whatever little bit I could and showing the best of China and Chinese citizens to the international community.

More importantly, even during the hectic work in the field, the calm and brave Ms. Deng Yajun, as head of the Chinese forensic team, was able to contact Beijing headquarters about longer-term arrangements. As Thai authorities were not able to handle the huge task of working on DNA samples of thousands of victims, and the many developed countries providing rapid response in the field did not have ready funding for DNA analysis, it was Deng who took immediate action and secured a tremendous decision from Beijing: China would conduct all the DNA analysis work and hand over the results to the international community.

No red tape. No hassles. No strings attached. China would do it all. The international community was completely awed by the swift decision by China even as DNA samples were being collected. I heard the news in the temple compound, and I was tremendously proud.

Now, 15 years have passed since the tsunami relief work that I took part in. Even though I'm no longer working in the Chinese foreign service, I remain deeply interested in China's dedication and contribution to international development and emergency response. As a keen observer working in the international development field, I've seen tremendous progress by China.

When the deadly earthquake hit Nepal in 2015, the China International Search and Rescue (CISAR) quickly arrived at the scene, equipped with top expertise and hardware equipment. During the Ebola breakout in Africa, China was one of the top go-to resource providers. Moreover, China would follow up emergency response with stepped-up support for establishing the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, backed by, among others, China-sourced training, know-how and hardware.

I have all the confidence that the China story on international development and global camaraderie will surely continue and open up great new chapters.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.

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