|By Roland S. Süssmann|
Contrary to what one might have thought, the Tsunami on 26 December 2004 not only made waves in South East Asia, but also released a wave of activity in Jerusalem. In fact, as soon as the disaster was announced, the Criminal Forensic Department of the Israel Police set up a crisis group on account of the large number of Israelis who regularly traveled in the affected areas, especially at the end of the year. In order to hear about this specialist department, we met the man who runs it, Chief Superintendent SHALOM TSAROOM. His team was rapidly dispatched to the scene to participate in the international effort to identify bodies.
Before telling us about your mission to Thailand directly related to the Tsunami disaster, could you briefly describe for us the tasks of the police department you run?
Basically our job is forensic identification, which consists primarily of collecting and identifying physical indicators and of carrying out autopsies for crimes that I would call “civilian” (theft, murder, rape, arson and attacks of any sort). This has gradually had added to it a whole set of investigations linked directly to terrorism, to which our people have been subjected for over four years. Our work covers the entire country, and covers a whole range of issues, such as DNA tests, identifying footprints etc. We work both at the crime scene and in our own physics, chemistry and other laboratories, which are spread out around the country. These are classic forensic activities. In respect of terrorism we have two well-defined missions: forensic investigations and analyzing the type of explosives used. You should be aware that our scientific investigation lets us put together a very complete file, which often saves a large number of regular investigation days. In most of our many cases our conclusions allow a file to be closed up, to find the guilty and bring them to justice. In the modern world, scientific files, on account of their objectivity, have more value than personal testimony. Nowadays the first question the courts ask when they get a case is whether a forensic investigation had been undertaken. This requirement is growing worldwide, and I can state without any false modesty that this is a field where Israel is a true leader. Our work methods, our techniques in investigation, analysis and assessment that we have perfected, the instruments (frequently portable) that we have developed in our workshops, and the abilities of the personnel are unanimously recognized and appreciated by professionals the world over, among whom we enjoy a first-class reputation. Incidentally, our expertise is very often sought after, and we have consulted in many countries, not just on terrorism issues.
Apropos terrorism, can you explain in a few words what exactly is your role, obviously without disclosing secrets about your modus operandi?
As I have already said, a large part of our investigation concerns analyzing the type of explosive used. When there is a suicide attack, it is always difficult to piece together the items, since often nothing or very little remains. We also have to quickly uncover the identity of the person who willingly turned themselves into a human bomb, which is always very laborious, because most often he or she has been totally ripped to shreds and no family comes to claim the body. So we make a special effort to locate the hand or at least a finger, hoping they have not been burnt. On the scene we take a fingerprint and try to match it in our files. In this regard I should also say that though we have a large data bank of prints and photos, for the time being the law prohibits us from setting up a similar database with the DNA of terrorists we are holding or of ordinary criminals. I think this will soon change. In the case of human bombs, the body is general destroyed, but it is not so rare that the head remains more or less intact or partially recognizable. We photograph it and compare it with our computerized files. Effectively, we do everything we can to provide a large amount of information as fast as possible to the investigators, so they can carry out their job. For example, when a car bomb explodes, we do a quick investigation to know which vehicle it was, where it came from, whether it was stolen – where and when – and if possible the itinerary it took, all of which often lets us identify the terrorists and any accomplices. Recovering various parts that we can compare with our files helps us in identifying vehicles. As I said, identifying the explosives is of primary importance. According to the type of attack, we know which sort of explosive we should be looking for. Identifying it tells us which laboratory it came from; often certain types of explosives have already been used in similar attacks. We pass this information to the security services, which can thus take the necessary measures to get to where the bombs were made, find those responsible and above all prevent further attacks.
You mentioned in passing about gathering shredded body parts for identification and various other purposes. Is this not a particularly dreadful job?
This is in fact one of the most demanding parts of our job, and is gradually becoming one of the most important. Unfortunately, over the last few years as a result of the increase in attacks, we have become specialists in identifying bodies, which in the professional vocabulary is called DVI, Disaster Victims Identification. People who have joined us a few years ago knew they risked coming up against this type of horror from time to time at particularly awful crimes, but they never thought they would become involved so deeply and in such a systematic manner. Today, following a government decision, this has become one of our priority national missions. The field is vast, covering road accidents, fires, earthquakes, building collapse and attacks. Identifying bodies requires a lot of time and effort, on the purely technical and psychological level as well as in terms of personal commitment. I would even say that the soul of each one of us has been profoundly traumatized on each occasion, because despite all the experience, no one can say that they can get used to horror. We put a lot of thought into how we can improve our work, and especially how to get it done as quickly and rationally as possible. We do this not just to get results as fast as possible, which lets us inform the families who are living through a Calvary of waiting, but also so that we should be faced for as short a time as possible with the horrors that affect us so much. We currently have a paradoxical situation, where on the one hand some of our staff has quit because they cannot handle it psychologically, and on the other hand we are inundated by applicants. As a result we have raised the required level to be accepted in our unit. Applicants must have a very high-level technical education and a strong character. We also require alertness, which lets people when they enter the crime scene not only see the corpse but also be ready to detect any signs and details that will let us progress our investigation. The entrance exams are accordingly very comprehensive and also involve a psychological assessment. I can say that the candidates we are accepting are better than those who have left us. We are involved throughout Israel, but abroad generally only when the victims are Jewish or Israeli. In the case of attacks, earthquakes or at the specific request of a friendly government, we also send a team on site.
I would also like to say that in our department we benefit from the help of a large number of volunteers who assist in DVI; thirty dentists and about six hundred members of ZAKA (an orthodox organization that specializes in the recovery of body parts). These are not investigation professionals, but people who help us get out a mutilated body, find missing limbs, recover evidence and then clean up the scene of attacks. You can well imagine the degree of devotion such people show. A description of our work would not be complete if I did not give special credit to the teams who work at the Abu Kabir Pathology Institute, who throughout the year display a remarkable level of professionalism.
Does your work require a constant ability to adapt and be flexible?
Absolutely, and it is thanks to this ability that we have been able to resolve many problems and to innovate in many fields, developing new work technologies while constantly increasing our professionalism. Obviously, there are very well defined work rules, but an ability to adapt is key. During our mission to Thailand, this was very useful.
Since you have mentioned your involvement in Thailand, can you tell us how your work took place on the scene?
As always in similar cases, we set up our crisis group and mobilized the various specialties it required. We have a well-established procedure for preparing an operation abroad, nothing is left to chance and when we board the airplane not only is all our equipment available and in working order, but each of my men knows his place and job in the new mission. At the beginning it was thought we were going to Sri Lanka, and we prepared for an operation in that country. Needless to say, such preparations require hours of meetings in order to check every detail. It then turned out that the army was sending a humanitarian mission there and that our part in body identification was not required. Less than two hours later, I received a request from our Foreign Ministry that we go to Thailand. We were completely prepared within two days and left with a reduced team of twelve men and a ton and a half of equipment. We had no idea of the situation on the ground, only that I had a list of names of 1,500 missing Israelis. Bear in mind that we are used to handling twenty or thirty bodies. The idea of having to find and then identify some 1,500 corpses gave me more than a few headaches. But we had to be ready to face any eventuality. I said a short prayer that I hoped we would find at least one limb that would let us identify a body of even just a single Israeli. Having no idea of what awaited us, I set a number of ground rules. Firstly, I decided to respond positively to any request for assistance, whatever the person’s nationality. When we reached Phuket, I took a car to tour the disaster area. When I got back, I realized that it was impossible to work according to the usual rules and that it was vital to take stock of the situation every two hours, because it was continuously changing and what was a useful working system one moment might be of no use a few hours later. At the end of my first reconnaissance I immediately called Israel to call in my second team that was on stand-by.
To illustrate what you have said, could you provide a practical example of such a development?
At the beginning I thought the only way to recognize bodies efficiently was through DNA. But in less than a day, I realized that I was wrong and that I had to use teeth, special marks (tattoos, scars, jewels etc) and finger prints. I will pass over the operational details of setting up and moving our working headquarters. It was a large-scale operation in its own right.
But you were not the only ones there. How did cooperation with the other countries work out?
I immediately understood that it was impossible that a single team carry out this enormous job. I did everything to bring together the foreign forces present and to involve the Thailandese to the maximum. That was a key point, because we were in their country and had never to forget it. To be effective it was very important to handle susceptibilities, to play local politics and to use a lot of psychology. I therefore decided to appoint a Thailandese as head of the operation. Then we had the idea of setting up what I would call a true “identification factory”. To this end we created a database to be shared by all the delegations, for DNA, fingerprints, photos, teeth etc. This then helped every country in finding its own citizens. Another part of our work was bringing together in a single location the corpses that were dispersed among the hospitals, sanctuaries and other places. All operations were supervised by the Australian team, the largest and the first to arrive on the scene, which had taken control at Kao-Lak. We set up two centers: at Krabi, where there were about 800 bodies, and at Kao-Lak, where there were almost 3,500. Twice a day the DVI team leaders met to take stock of the situation and to take the necessary decisions. We decided to request to be in charge of Krabi, since the other center was much too big for us. We worked there with Japanese, Canadian, Portuguese and Italian teams and with the Swiss team (led by a Jewish doctor from Zurich). As time went by other delegations arrived there, so that in the end about thirty countries were represented. Without wishing to brag, I can say that the Israeli team, through its remarkable level of professionalism and its experience, was considered an authority and we were listened to very attentively. Unfortunately, everything I had seen at the scenes of attacks over the last few years in Israel stood me in very good stead in Thailand. We obtained command at Krabi and before starting operations I went there to assess the situation and to see how to work in the most efficient manner. A kilometer from the designated place I was assailed by a ghastly smell of corpses, many decomposing, exposed to the sun and the humidity – around which children were calmly playing. In Israel we do everything so that children not be confronted with the reality of death. In Thailand it is part of everyday life and there was no reason to keep the children away. So I made a list of the most urgent needs. I knew I would get everything I asked for, as huge amounts of money had been made available. So I first ordered refrigerated containers. While I dealt with all the issues of organization and supplies my men had started working and after one day we were able to identify the first Israeli body, that of Shaliel Sharon. I would never have thought that we would succeed so fast. You must understand what mixed emotions we had: on the one hand enormous joy to have found and identified a body… and on the other hand that it was an Israeli victim. We all cried, but we did not know if it was joy or sadness! The second day we identified five bodies, of which three were Israelis: Esther Levy, Hemdah Cohen and Zehava Aloni. Each of us went through this strange happiness in his own way. You should know how much the families were grateful to us when we brought them the bodies of their dear lost ones, and despite their deep upset, they expressed their happiness. I can assure you it was a weird moment. I personally informed each family. Our “successes” encouraged us enormously to keep going and also served as an example and source of hope for the other teams.
How did you organize the center at Krabi?
Without wishing to get into unpleasant details, I must say that when we arrived at Krabi I found there hundreds upon hundreds of corpses piled up in a Chinese temple, uncovered and mixed up, from babes to the elderly. I leave the horror of the situation to your imagination. The smell stuck to your skin and clothes, which often could not be re-used. The Thailandese then started dealing with the corpses, wrapping them in plastic body bags and putting them into the 130 refrigerated containers. They did terrific work very courageously, calmly and in silence. After two days of cleaning up the situation started to improve and the smell started to go down a bit. To cap everything, we learnt that some of the bodies had already been buried. For identification purposes we had to exhume them, despite the heat and the humidity. Gradually our “factory” took shape, the corpses passing from station to station: x-rays of the teeth, taking DNA, photography, and recording distinguishing markings. In this connection I must say that one of the Israeli women was recognized thanks to a scar from cosmetic surgery, because she had had her breasts enlarged.
This entire operation was not easy to handle. For my part, I identified three basic problems that, once resolved, allowed us to work efficiently: to organize effective work by bringing together the technical means required; create international cooperation in which all the teams would work well together in a spirit of mutual support; and lastly to obtain effective cooperation from the Thailandese, which was no simple matter. I must say that when I saw an Israeli working hand in hand with a Japanese, a Portuguese and an Italian with a single purpose and motivated by an identical wish to solve the problems they faced, I was moved, happy and proud.
You said that you left with a list of 1,500 Israeli names, and in the end you found just seven. What happened to the others?
As time went by the list got shorter, as Israelis gradually contacted their families who in turn informed the authorities in Israel. The stroke of luck, the miracle in this whole affair was that two days before the Tsunami struck, most of the Israelis in Phuket left the place. There was a large Israeli music festival in the north of the country, called “Full Moon”, to which most of the Israelis in Thailand went! By the time we left we had found all the Israelis who had perished in the Tsunami, which means we had a 100% success rate. In addition to our own citizens, we identified 24 other bodies. By the way, our reputation was rather inflated, because for a simple yes or a no people said, “Go see the Israelis – they will have a solution for your problem…”
What happened to the various data banks you created?
They still operate in Phuket. China took responsibility for managing the DNA bank, which represents considerable cost and work. As to the future, when the operation on site will be complete, which will still take some time, the delegations will meet to create a procedure to be followed internationally in the event of a major disaster. This will be based on our various experiences and the data banks will of course play a key role. It is impossible for a country struck by such a tragedy to manage alone the effects and consequences of the catastrophe. It is only through well-organized international cooperation that such an upheaval can reasonably be handled. But I would not like to finish my account of our mission without giving credit to the Thailandese, who on their own initiative quite simply photographed all the corpses, their faces, any tattoos etc, displayed the photos and had them incorporated in the data bank that they made available to everyone, families and delegations. That little something greatly helped our work to the point that I do not hesitate to state that I am far from certain that without it we could have succeeded.
What do you recommend doing to facilitate the identification of bodies in the event of disaster?
In order to avoid families of victims who are called on to recognize a dear one not being deeply shocked, I recommend that everyone have some sort of distinguishing sign: a tattoo or a small jewel from which one does not part, like a special wedding ring…, even piercing. It has to be understood that often the faces photographed have been horribly mutilated to the point of being entirely unrecognizable. The photo of some distinguishing sign or mark could avoid traumatizing a member of the deceased’s family.
We could have carried on listening to Chief Superintendent Tsaroom for hours. There are countless happy and sad anecdotes of this terrible experience. Chief Superintendent Tsaroom also spoke of the important support provided by Lubavitch and Zaka on the spot. The Israelis have left. Today twenty-five international delegations are still working at Krabi using the model and rules set up by Chief Superintendent Tsaroom and his teams. Little Israel, with only limited means, has given the entire world a big lesson in professionalism. And beyond that, the work of the police forensic department of the Jewish State has made one more contribution to improving Israel’s image. This is how a Swiss, whose brother had been identified by the Israelis, spoke to Chief Superintendent Tsaroom, in tears and kissing him, “I must apologize in my name and in the name of my brother whom you have found. We hated the Israelis and for years we have done everything to denigrate your country’s image… without knowing you!” By way of reply, Shalom Tsaroom kissed him. No comment.