Alain de Schryver, a network engineer for AXA in Brussels, is also a volunteer for Rescue Telecom, a humanitarian association specialising in telecommunications. He looks back on his last mission, on the island of Saint-Martin last September.
After a 45-minute flight, as our plane approaches Saint-Martin, we suddenly become aware of the magnitude of the disaster that has unfolded. From the sky the chaos is already highly visible. Most of the houses have lost their roofs, which have been carried away by the wind. All that can be seen on the ground is debris. On the airport runway we are met by an incredible sight: planes lying on their sides like toys left behind by a child. We can only imagine the gale force winds that had left them in such a state: winds that had reached up to 360km per hour.
Brussels, 7 September 2017
One week earlier I was watching the news and saw the terrible aftermath that cyclone Irma had left in its wake on the Caribbean islands of Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthelémy, following its devastating passage through Antigua and Barbuda, when I received a message from Daniel Box: “I need your help as soon as possible”.
Daniel is the international head of Rescue Telecom. The association has branches in France, Belgium, the United States and Japan. Our field of expertise: re-establishing telecommunications following natural disasters or other major crises. We set up urgent telecommunication links via satellite and supply electrical infrastructure such as generators and solar panels etc. Often, phenomena such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis can have a devastating effect on telephone lines and mobile networks. Yet it is precisely at those moments when such links are most needed, to help coordinate the work of rescue workers and to enable the local population to contact loved ones.
But this association doesn’t just operate when there is a natural disaster. Last year, for example, I went to Greece, near to the border with Macedonia, an area to which many migrants from the Middle East have flocked. The equipment that I set up there enabled them to identify themselves to the local authorities via email and to keep themselves informed. In other words, to help them exercise their fundamental rights.
When Daniel created Rescue Telecom in 2014 along with John Cramer, he immediately thought of me. Like him, I had been a volunteer for several years as part of AXA Atout Coeur, AXA’s international volunteering programme which brings together tens of thousands of employees to participate in solidarity-based operations.
Volunteering has always appealed to me. Even when I was a scout I always tried to carry out my “good deed” every day. This commitment towards others has carried on into my humanitarian work. I can also count on the support of AXA and of my manager, with whom I have made arrangements to be reimbursed for my time off once I come back from my mission.
As Daniel knows how easily persuaded I am when it comes to volunteering, he books me onto the next available flight to Pointe-à-Pitre. A stopover in Guadeloupe is still obligatory in order to reach Saint-Martin. Located less than 300km from the devastated island, it was spared by the cyclone and has an international airport. With the clock ticking, I prepare my luggage: tent, survival provisions, and above all my network technician equipment.
Orly Airport, 9 September 2017
I will be in a team with Chong and Pierre, two other volunteers from Rescue Telecom’s French team. Our mission: to support the French Red Cross by installing telecommunication links that will make their work on the ground easier. We meet on 9 September at Orly airport with 200 kilos of equipment. This includes BGAN terminals, which are portable satellite devices that enable internet connections to be established anywhere on the planet, even in so-called “white zones” where no network is normally available. Beyond BGAN terminals we also have satellite telephones, solar panels, batteries and a power generator.
When we arrive at Pointe-de-Pitre a nasty surprise awaits us: we learn that all available planes have been commandeered by the military and the priority medical teams. Along with my AXA Guadeloupe contacts, we work out a plan B: chartering a boat. 48 hours later, however, the local authorities give us the green light to board a humanitarian aid flight. We are set to take off on 13 September.
Marigot, 13 September 2017
This mission is by no means my first but I have the feeling that we are going to have to be particularly resourceful this time round. The Red Cross teams take us to Marigot, the island’s capital. The NGO has set up a base camp there in a high school. Upon arrival we realise that there is not much in the way of mod cons: the running water supply has been cut off and there is only tinned food to eat. The army has set up an 8pm curfew, enforcing it with helicopters equipped with powerful headlights which patrol the town from above in order to dissuade looters.
The following day we take stock of the situation. Luckily, the island’s telecommunications infrastructure has not been completely destroyed, but the power supply of the school’s telecom network is down. A school official shows us the IT equipment in place. Thankfully, the fibre optic infrastructure still works. We manage to restart the system and set up a Wi-Fi access point for all NGOs working to come to the aid of victims.
This may seem trivial given the scale of the disaster and the distress of the population but it acts as a vital tool in ensuring that everyone is 100% concentrated on their task. Communication via internet with the headquarters and other health centres is finally established, thus allowing mission statements to be drawn up. The bandwidth even enables people to contact their families via a quick WhatsApp message. “It’s a small yet highly valuable comfort when you are working under pressure all day long” one person confesses.
Humanitarian aid: A 360° approach
Recent weeks have seen a flurry of serious natural disasters. After the passage of the hurricane through the US and the Caribbean, and the severe floods that wreaked havoc in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, Central Mexico was then hit by an earthquake the likes of which the country had not seen in 30 years.
AXA took immediate action, providing direct and indirect logistical support through AXA Assistance’s network. The AXA US and AXA Mexico Foundations financially supported their humanitarian partners on the ground. In parallel, funds were transferred to the Red Cross, CARE and Unicef, all of which have a high level of commitment in these regions, as well as to the AXA Foundation in Mexico.
In addition, the Group committed to match all the donations made by its employees as part of global fundraising campaigns on the basis of one additional euro for every euro collected.
It is impossible to know in advance what a humanitarian mission will entail. You have to be ready to lend a helping hand in a variety of ways in order to push the collective work forward.
During the week-long mission, we didn’t just help the Red Cross teams. In the surrounding neighbourhood, the EDF electricity grid had been deactivated. We distributed recharge kits for mobile appliances to members of the community. We also lent our satellite telephones out too.
I may never forget the woman who, thanks to one of these phones, was able to let her children know she was alive: she was in tears.
Nor the man from Brittany who had been on the island for 18 years and who confessed to me on the flight back to Brussels that he had seen his whole life swept away in a matter of hours.
It is hard to not become emotional when you hear such stories, even though I try and keep a certain emotional distance between myself and the events, so as not to buckle and in order to remain efficient. And so as to remain concentrated on my true added value in these crisis zones: making the machines work.