South African rescuers who recently returned from assisting in earthquake-devastated Haiti will never forget the hell they found there.
On their way to the shattered capital, Port-au-Prince, they came across the first gruesome scene: a body on the road with legs that ended in ragged stumps where dogs had chewed it. They realised then that nothing could have prepared them for what awaited them.
He was the youngest of the team dispatched to Haiti by North West province’s Emergency Medical Rescue Services (EMRS) College.
JC van Niekerk (31) looks down at his hands that lifted chunks of cement in search of survivors. “The exposure is extreme. The scale of the things you see is enormous. The fatalities are almost indescribable,” he says.
Teammate Mothusi Malaka (30) agrees. “It’s more than devastating,” he says. He recalls the first patient he saw at the field hospital - a boy who’d been shot by police for trying to steal water. “I know it was an earthquake but it felt like we were on a battlefield. It felt like war.”
They’re all having trouble sleeping. The images of people searching for their families, and of dead bodies and thousands of injured people haunt them. And the stench of death that blanketed Port-au-Prince will always remain with them, says Chris Nagel, who came home 6 kg lighter. “It’s a smell that clings to you - in the end your skin smells like that too.”
They were the first international team to find a woman alive, and the miraculous story of their rescue of 61-year-old Ema Zizi from the ruins of a cathedral was reported around the world.
Every morning the team prayed together. “We started the day in the right way irrespective of our beliefs. And every night we spoke about what we’d seen that day and what had moved us,” JC says.