|The Vietnamese Army team uses sniffer dogs to search for trapped victims in Hatay province of Turkey on February 15. — VNA/VNS Photo
Major General Phạm Văn Tỵ, deputy director of the Department of Search and Rescue under the Việt Nam People’s Army (VPA), who led the VPA rescue team in Turkey, spoke to Vietnam News Agency about the humanitarian mission and lessons learned. He is also deputy chief of the Office of the National Committee for Incident and Disaster Response, Search and Rescue.
This was the first time VPA sent a rescue team overseas to offer humanitarian support and take on natural disaster rescue missions. Could you tell us about this journey?
We arrived in Turkey when the first 72 hours of disaster response – known as the golden time – was over. Therefore, the VPA task was not only to find and save people trapped in the rubble, but also to find and bring unfortunate victims out.
The Vietnamese team consisted of three forces, namely the Engineer Team, the Medical Army Team and the Sniffer Dog Team.
The sniffer dogs helped search for and detect the victims. After the dogs identified the location, the Engineer Team used specialised detection equipment (temperature cameras and wall-penetrating radar systems) to find the exact location of the victims.
The Vietnamese military medical force was always ready to ensure medical care, set up hospitals to collect and treat injured members on duty. Our military doctors also treated Turkish people as well as offered free healthcare services and medicines. The international forces highly appreciated the organisational work of the Vietnamese Army team, especially when we were able to find and hand over the victims’ exact locations.
We witnessed the tears of Turkish people, especially the elderly, fathers and mothers. They cried and thanked the Vietnamese team. Those people have almost nothing left. We didn't even have enough to eat, but we still shared a portion of food with them.
Seeing the Vietnamese team keep searching at noon without sleep while other rescue forces were resting, local people gave us bread and water – which was already in shortage. Those actions full of affection made us feel this is an "order from the heart".
I told people and local leaders: “Our army came here to help and regarded searching for victims as searching for our loved ones. We deeply sympathise with the losses and the pain of the Turkish people.”
The team not only had to cope with the cold weather but also the scarcity of food and water. How did you overcome this?
Due to a number of reasons, we were unable to transport enough equipment, clothes and other necessary items to Turkey.
On the first two days, we had no shelter and had to sit around the fire to warm up. After arriving, at around 3:30am, we received the first shipment but it was not enough. We stayed up all night and took on the first duties at 8am the next morning.
I joked with my colleagues: "We have never been through such a good night as last night.”
We all laughed. We had a saucepan to cook instant noodles and eat together.
They were all small things but showed the bravery and determination of the soldiers. In difficulties, if the commander wavered, the team members could not confidently perform their task. We also sympathise with Turkey regarding the condition of damaged facilities.
While the team participated in search and rescue missions, dangers were always present due to aftershocks. As the commander, how did you ensure both the search and rescue efficiency and safety?
According to international and Vietnamese regulations, first of all, the organiser must always ensure the safety of rescue work. However, in order to both perform duties and ensure safety, all rescue forces must be brave, determined and understand the noble honour and duty.
The commander must study, evaluate carefully, make the right assessment of the situation and be decisive in implementation, not afraid of hardships. We stayed at the stadium, worked in hazardous conditions amid aftershocks of 6.2-6.4 magnitude. Everything around was rubble, but if our soldiers and sniffer dogs did not enter, we couldn't search for the victims' location. If we don't have a firm stance, we cannot perform the tasks.
The experience is not only determination and solid political bravery. The commander must be decisive, dare to take responsibility and have to ensure maximum safety. That is the core of leadership and tasks on the field.
What are the lessons learned from the mission, considering we do not have much experience of these situations in Việt Nam?
In fact, we have not had many serious disasters like earthquakes in Việt Nam, but we have prepared scenarios and plans to respond to incidents like earthquakes and tsunamis.
Although our earthquakes are of a small scale, we can't rule them out in the future. We have prepared scenarios at the national level. The rescue missions in Turkey provided experience to support our plans and help us make amendments to the training curriculum as well as improve our mobility.
We might face not only earthquakes but also many other non-traditional security situations and other potential risks in the future, such as chemical, toxic, and radioactive incidents. We must have a plan to proactively prevent and respond to all of those. — VNS