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Ops Lionheart Laos: Battling the Elements and Fatigue to Save Lives
For two weeks, they trudged through waist-high mud littered with nails and debris in an effort to save lives. Hear from two SCDF officers who led the search-and-rescue mission in Southern Laos.

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Activated for search and rescue: Laos Ops Lionheart Contingent Commander Major Euan Izmal (left) and the Rescue Platoon Section Commander Warrant Officer 1 Muhammad Fayrus. PHOTO: Tan Ming Hui
 
First came the rain, then the floods. Scores of Laotians were left homeless or missing after flash floods, caused by a catastrophic dam collapse, swept through their villages in Southern Laos in July 2018. 

A 17-member Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) contingent comprising officers from the Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (DART) was activated to provide assistance to those affected. Code-named Operation Lionheart, the contingent consisted of DART officers, fire-and-rescue specialists, operations officers, a paramedic and a technical support officer.  

“It was quite daunting for me. I knew a contingent would be deployed but I didn’t expect that I would be the one leading them,” shared Contingent Commander Major (MAJ) Euan Izmal. Laos was deemed “uncharted territory” for our elite lifesavers. 

“I was excited and nervous at the same time, but with the support of my team and detailed research into the terrain, I was ready to accept the challenge and lend a hand to those affected,” recalled MAJ Euan.

The contingent was tasked to conduct search operations in flood-devastated zones in Attapeu Province.   

Learning on the Go 
Getting to the affected site was no easy task. The flood had damaged roads and bridges, rendering the site inaccessible by vehicles. 

Setting off from Ban Mai Village in Attapeu Province, the contingent hiked for two hours daily to reach the worksite, while carrying about 10 kg of equipment on their backs. Wading through waist-high mud littered with nails and other forms of debris, the trek was especially perilous for MAJ Euan and his team. 

“We saw houses badly damaged by the flood, as well as vehicles that had been swept away and lodged into the muddy terrain,” recalled MAJ Euan, who described the site as a ghost town. “Personal belongings were strewn everywhere – it was how I imagined a tsunami sweeping through a village would be like.” 

What remained of the houses displayed eight to nine-meter-tall water marks – a grim reminder of the magnitude of the flood that had swept through the village just a week before.

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Time was of the essence for MAJ Euan’s team. They would need to work fast, and adapt even faster. PHOTOS: SCDF

As operations commenced, the Rescue Platoon’s Section Commander Warrant Officer 1 (WO1) Muhammad Fayrus recalled coming across a villager trying to salvage the remains of his damaged home. 

“He walked almost 3 km through the debris but all he managed to retrieve were kitchenware and some family photos,” recalled WO1 Fayrus. “Other victims told us some of their family members and neighbours were still missing.”

Search operations ceased at 3.30 pm every day so that the contingent would be able to travel back to their base before nightfall. To cope with the exhaustion, MAJ Euan and WO1 Fayrus made sure their team took tactical breaks and constantly checked on everyone’s well-being. 

“I won’t say our morale dropped, but we were really tired,” said MAJ Euan, adding that the rescue contingent kept spirits high by singing and bantering during journeys to and from Ban Mai Village.

Living in a Disaster Stricken Area
According to MAJ Euan, having good meals were a morale-booster for him and his team. And what better way to bond than making these meals yourself? 

“Sa bai di bo” means “how are you?” in Lao. The team picked up some basic phrases to buy groceries and food items from a nearby market. “And we had some great cooks among us; the officers would take turns to dish out hot bowls of tom yam soup and hearty plates of nasi goreng,” said MAJ Euan. “Sometimes, good food is all it takes to overcome the fatigue from a hard day’s work.”

The officers also made sure their loved ones at home were informed about their well-being. “No matter how much you train, the feeling of missing home and your loved ones will always hit you after a while,” admitted MAJ Euan. “Luckily, we were able to send our loved ones messages, but of course, it wasn’t the same as seeing them face-to-face.”

Homecoming

The Ops Lionheart deployment to Laos provided MAJ Euan and his team the opportunity to put their DART training to good use. 

“Despite the challenges presented, I can proudly say my team rose to the occasion,” MAJ Euan shared confidently. “All of us had to adapt on-the-fly and persevere throughout the operation as every step we took through the thick mud was difficult.”

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MAJ Euan kept his mud-stained epaulettes as a reminder of the challenges he overcame during the mission. PHOTO: Tan Ming Hui

"I will always remember my experiences in DART – it’s something that I’ll share with my kids after I retire,” said WO1 Fayrus. “I feel lucky to be able to take part in overseas missions and help people in need. It’s very rewarding.”

  1. by Fatimah Mujibah
  2. 02 November 2018
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