"It was a Close Protection Officer...who heard me. Had I not decided to knock exactly at that point in time, they would have repaired the backhoe [and] started to dig. They would’ve destabilised the area over which I was lying and I would not be sitting here today."
It’s been over ten years since Senior Civil Affairs Officer, Jens Kristensen found himself trapped in the earthquake that hit Haiti’s Hotel Christopher. Jens recounts his harrowing experience of being confined in a dark coffin-like space for five days with no water or drink, not knowing when, or if, he would be rescued. He also explains his remarkable decision to return to work after just two days following the rescue knowing that "mentally and physically I was capable and still able to help."
"It was a terrible, terrible disaster for the UN. For Haiti. For the world...I think that finding me as a survivor gave people hope. It was a light in the darkness. People were there. People were cheering. It was a new birthday.”
Melissa Fleming 0:00
From the United Nations, I'm Melissa Fleming. This is Awake At Night. Today, my guest is Jens Kristensen, Senior Civil Affairs Officer at the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Mali. Jens, you've worked for the United Nations for more than 20 years, you've been almost everywhere; Central Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean, in many different roles, from conflict resolution to emergency responses and disaster zones, something that affected you very personally as we will hear. What drew you to this kind of work in the first place?
Jens Kristensen 00:55
I think it's something from far back when I was a kid. I’ve always been fascinated about the world. I had some parents that were very outward, very creative, providing me with a lot of freedom. I kind of had the notion that I wanted to help. I started out with strategic planning and physical planning for the government of Mozambique during the Civil War, and right after the Civil War, I had the opportunity to support the return and reinstallation of refugees from Malawi and from Tanzania. And that, I think provided me with the feeling that this was something that was not just a job, but really also was a vocation.
Melissa Fleming 01:52
Can you describe perhaps an experience when you first encountered people in need and where you felt that you actually helped?
Jens Kristensen 02:02
A time in Angola, I worked for OCHA at the time as a field advisor and was responsible for coordinating the humanitarian assistance in southern Angola during the Civil War. And we took this small caravan flight that allowed us to land in an area that had seen extensive attacks by the unit rebels went to a village where hundreds, if not thousands, of IDPs had entered and tried to make a living. People had nothing. Some of them were living in warehouses, you had smoke all over the place, other people were sleeping in the open.
What really touched me immensely was that I saw some of these women that, after there had been some food distribution, they went around and picked up the few grains of maize that were left on the ground. There was so little food. Some of them had nothing, except the clothes that they stood and walked in. Some of them didn't even have adequate clothing. I mean, it was really heartbreaking. But also then what we were able to do, we were able to provide the food assistance, more food came in.
We managed to get some emergency schooling for the children. And it really made me also proud that I was able to make a difference. That I was able to save lives. I know it sounds like a cliche, but it is also very true. It's also, I think, what many humanitarian workers really do every day. It is a gratitude in terms of being able to make a difference and make lives better for at least some people.
Melissa Fleming 04:03
I know speaking to a number of humanitarians like you that this feeling is what drives them. But they're also constantly left with a feeling that they can never do enough and that this is something that keeps them awake at night. How about you? Is this something that is part of your day-to-day life and feelings and what keeps you awake at night?
Jens Kristensen 04:35
You know, of course, it's frustrating. You can never do enough and there's always more. But you also need to be realistic and do what you can. What I have done since, in the last decade or so, is to also change it from direct humanitarian work and also to engage more in mediation and conflict resolution. So that we stop some of the conflicts so that people have an opportunity to return to a more normal life. Among other things, what I'm doing here in Mali.
Melissa Fleming 05:21
What is the job of a senior civil affairs officer and just maybe give us a sense of a day and a life for you, in Mali? What's going on there?
Jens Kristensen 05:32
It is very complex. I work in the central part of Mali, where we have both community conflicts. We have radicalization, jihadism, absence of the state, absence of social services, most communities want peace. They want to have a peaceful life. They want their children to go to school. They want health care. They want to have their animals vaccinated. They want to be able to go to the market. And what I'm trying to do, and with some success in certain areas, is to really make the fabric, reconcile communities and mediate solutions so that the communities themselves see the benefit of making peace.
Melissa Fleming 06:23
You have not only worked in conflict areas, but you've also moved into the field of emergency response when you've had to deal with natural disasters like earthquakes. Most people run from disaster zones and you seem to run right into them.
Jens Kristensen 06:43
It becomes a vocation to help people. I'm privileged myself and I feel that by working in this, using my experience, I also give something back. But you also get something out of it yourself. Of course, we obviously also get personal satisfaction that we are able to save lives, to support people to come back to a minimum of living, in a sense.
Melissa Fleming 07:24
In 2005, you were posted in Haiti and you spent almost six years there. What did you think about Haiti as a place?
Jens Kristensen 07:33
I enjoyed Haiti. It was a wonderful country. It has its areas that are very, very beautiful. It has a fantastic charm. And I enjoyed my time in Haiti.
Melissa Fleming 07:53
Except, you know, in 2010, when the terrible earthquake struck Haiti and you were caught up in it, you were trapped in the rubble for five days. Can you tell me what happened? And where were you when the earthquake happened?
Jens Kristensen 08:12
I was at Minustah’s headquarters, Hotel Christopher, and was sitting preparing myself for a meeting the next day, just before five. And there was a shaking rumble as if a large truck was driving by outside. Obviously, not possible. Hotel Christopher was on a cul-de-sac and it was a big hotel. It was like a six-story hotel. So I realised it was an earthquake and the shaking stopped, maybe for a couple of seconds. I decided to hide under the table to protect myself against falling debris. There was a very loud noise and the next thing I remember was that I was lying on my back, pitch dark, not a sound. I could not move out of this coffin where I was confined. I had maybe 5cm on each side of my shoulder and about 5-7cm above my nose. I was lying with bent knees so maybe a metre and a half a leg or something like that.
I tried to push a little bit on the debris and on the rocks. But, of course, I couldn't move any of these rocks. The first thing that went through my mind was ‘do not panic.’ I think my training as a humanitarian worker having been in conflict zones, having been in previous earthquakes, although not in the same situation, of course, had given me some kind of ballast to remain calm in a sense. But also, I think we all have a little bit of claustrophobia. So, it was critical for me to tell myself ‘do not panic. Stay calm, really save resources mentally.’ The resources that I would need to apply to get through it.
So, ‘don't panic. Take a deep breath. Stay calm.’ And then I tried to explore the area around where I was. I felt on myself, of course, to feel if I had anything broken or if I was injured. And I was extremely lucky in the sense that I had a smaller physical rift on my right hand but a superficial wound only. No broken bones, no open wounds, and really as a miracle that I was physically okay although I was confined. I started to fear that I may die of asphyxiation because of the confined space or whatever. But of course, after some hours, I was still breathing and had to realise that, of course, this is a building that has collapsed and, of course, there are ways that the air comes in through these cracks and whatever there may be in the building.
Melissa Fleming 13:11
I was just going to ask you to just describe who's it must have been frightening. I believe you didn't have any food or anything to drink.
Jens Kristensen 13:21
No food, no water for the five days and, in the beginning, no sound. It was really like these stories from Victorian Britain, Sherlock Holmes or whatever, where you are buried alive, right? And you only have this coffin. I think what probably was the worst, in the beginning, was this total remoteness and removal from anything that provided any sense of where I was. I don't know how long I had been there. Sometimes I fell asleep. I dozed off. I didn't know if I was asleep for five seconds, five minutes, five hours.
This lack of time was a way to make me panic in a sense and really required that I again told myself to ‘don't panic, keep control.’ Because if I do panic, I will die. Here, I had survived the earthquake. I didn't have any open wounds but clearly, I would probably hurt myself in the process or do something really stupid. So it was a matter of not panic and maintaining control on what I was doing. I was looking around where I was lying and I found my phone. I tried to call. Of course, there was no network so I couldn't call anybody. But I could see what time it was. By that time, 14-15 hours had passed, something like that. Mind you, I still thought that I was on the third floor of Hotel Christopher.
I didn't know that I had fallen from the third floor to where they found me at level minus one so four floors. So I still thought I was on the third floor and obviously hoped that I would be found soon, especially when there was noise. And I could start to look forward to being rescued. It didn't happen. I prayed to God that I would be rescued. And again, tried to do whatever I could to protect myself. There were numerous aftershocks; some were strong, some were weaker. Every time there was an aftershock, I tried to crouch under the table so I was as protected as much as I could. And then after the aftershocks, I tried to stretch my legs a little bit again and tried to get some circulation in my limbs.
Wednesday, I became hungry. It lasted a few hours then that stopped. And I didn't really feel hunger after that. Thirst, yes. You know, and then at a certain point, I heard some people knock or someone knock and I knocked back. I heard another person knock. I knocked back. And that, in a sense, was a relief that there was another human being there. That I was not alone.
Melissa Fleming 17:59
Were you expressing yourself as well? Were you screaming or asking for help?
Jens Kristensen 18:05
I did. When the machinery started, I relaxed. Slept. Dozed off, whatever.
Melissa Fleming 18:16
They were trying to cut you out?
Jens Kristensen 18:18
Exactly. So when the machinery stopped, I shouted and knocked. I found a piece of rubble, part of the concrete wall, whatever that I could have in my hand, and I started to knock on the metal rame. And I screamed every time the machinery stopped. I screamed and shouted in a beat and I banged and no one heard me. And I did it every single time. Now the way that search and rescue works is that there are periods, particularly during the evening and during the night, when everything is silent because they listen. And they have stethoscopes and they have dogs and they have all kinds of equipment to listen for noise and for people.
They also had that at Hotel Christopher, but they didn't hear me. I prayed to God but also, at the same point in time told God that this makes no sense. It makes no sense that I have lived and worked in the most dangerous places of the world. I have been... I mean, I was in Angola in a bombardment by UNITA and yes, I could have died but didn't do it. I didn't feel that I would die. But that's my own threshold in terms of how I react and how I move.
Melissa Fleming 20:12
You felt invincible before this?
Jens Kristensen 20:15
No, no, no, it's not invisible. I think it is calculated risk or it is that the probability that a rocket would fall exactly where I am is probably not grand. I protect myself. I put on a Flak Jacket if I am in an area where there's a risk of being shot. Safe rooms in case of rocket attacks or others. So it's not a matter of being foolhardy or invincible or anything like that but it's more in terms of maybe trying to have a realistic or foolhardy view on probability.
Melissa Fleming 21:10
So you take these calculated risks, and you think very rationally about probability, but here you're finding yourself confined in a coffin-like space, where an earthquake, this must have seemed very random, and you're saying this is not how I am meant to die.
Jens Kristensen 21:30
Yes, I had this dialogue with God. Well, a monologue. I mean, God didn't reply. But eventually, maybe God did reply by letting me out alive. There was a point in time on Saturday, Sunday. Because what happened after 24 hours, I wasn't rescued. 48 hours, 72 hours. You know, after 72 hours without water, your organs start to fail. Your kidneys start to fade out and if that happens, you die. And those thoughts also went through my mind, of course. Of course.
96 hours, and you start to get weaker. I started to get weaker. I had this notion that God helps you. But God only helps those that also help themselves. And if you don't make every effort yourself to do whatever you can to be rescued, you will not be rescued. I started to get weaker, get more tired. And Sunday morning, the machinery started. They just stopped and I was lying there and thinking, ‘Well, I'm tired’, because there was a bit of an effort to find this stone, move around, get around, shout, bang, and whatever else, I was kind of thinking, ‘Well, maybe I'll give it half an hour.’
But then I decided that I need to make every effort that I can myself. If I don't do it, I may not get rescued, I may die. But I need to do whatever I can do so that every chance is an opportunity. So I moved around and knocked and shouted, like I had done many times before, during the last five days. And then suddenly, I heard someone knocking back three times and then I knocked three times. And I got the knock back. Three times. Me again, I knocked three times. It was a show that this was an intelligent response and not just background noise from the building.
And then as someone started to shout and I could start to hear and someone... we started to then develop a communication where they could hear that there was someone down there alive. Then they started to dig me out. And by midday-afternoon, I was rescued. The story I was told was that they had put the backhoe on exactly where I was lying underneath. And it would probably have been crushed. But the backhoe had an oil leak and they stopped the machine to repair it and to change the hose. And while they did that, one of the humanitarian officers, it was a Close Protection Officer actually, was walking over the area, smoking a cigarette. And he was the one who heard me.
Now, had I not decided to knock. Exactly at that point in time. They would have repaired the backhoe they would have started to dig. They would’ve destabilised the area over which I was lying and I would not be sitting here today.
Melissa Fleming 26:57
Had they given up searching for people and they were just clearing the rubble?
Jens Kristensen 27:02
They were starting on it. I think they’d found three people before me. There was one that they rescued shortly after the earthquake. They got another one out after a couple of hours. And the third one after, I think, 24 hours, and then they didn't find anybody until they found and rescued me. So they had given up finding anybody else. The two people that I heard were not rescued. I don't know who they are or who they were.
Melissa Fleming 27:47
Tell me what that rescue felt like.
Jens Kristensen 27:52
It was... it was amazing. You know, they took seven hours to dig me out. It was several metres down. They managed to get a bottle of water into me and that was the most fantastic. I think it's probably the best liquid I've ever had. After five days, suddenly having something to drink was amazing. And then they got closer and managed to open a hole down at the end. And I was able to crawl out and they put me in a stretcher and pulled me upwards. What's interesting was that in my frame of mind, I was still thinking that I was on the third floor. But anyway, they pulled me upwards and I remember that I was wondering why. Why do we need to go up on the third floor? I mean, we should go downwards but it was amazing. It was like a new birthday. It really was.
Melissa Fleming 29:09
Were there people around and cheering?
Jens Kristensen 29:14
Oh, yes. The entire search and rescue team was there, a team coming down from Virginia Beach doing an amazing job. I mean, really. I was very lucky to meet them afterward. I met them both while they were still in Haiti to thank them. I went to Virginia Beach and met with them there also to thank them. Amazing team, amazing team. And the area was full of people because also I think I was the hope, right? It was a terrible, terrible disaster for the UN, for Haiti, for the world. And I think that finding me as a survivor there gave people hope. It was a light in the darkness. People were there. People were cheering. It was a new birthday. It was.
Melissa Fleming 30:50
I bet it was also for your loved ones. I mean, most of your friends and family must have thought that you hadn't survived.
Jens Kristensen 30:58
Yes. It was. I think they kept up hope. I think my parents kept up hope. They surely were the ones that obviously probably felt the worst. I think that they had started to realise that I probably had perished. So they were thrilled, they were so happy. So was I, of course.
Melissa Fleming 31:45
You returned to work only three days after you were rescued. Why?
Jens Kristensen 31:51
Two days, actually. Physically, I was okay. I had a sore back from lying five days on a concrete slab and there was a piece of a plastic tube from I guess the electric wiring, whatever, that was kind of poking up into my back. And I was trying to put some paper that I found around it so that it would not poke me in the back that much. But lying five days on a flat concrete slab, I was fortunate it was flat, it was slightly tilted. Even so, my head was slightly above my feet and my legs which was good for the circulation. So all things considered, well, it could have been worse.
And it was okay. I felt that if there was any point in time where Haiti really needed my training, what I could do as a humanitarian worker, the assistance, the support, that was then. I would not have been comfortable with, say, travelling back to Denmark and sitting there listening every day to the news, watching the TV, seeing whatever happened, the misery, the disaster, knowing that mentally and physically, I was capable and able to help.
Melissa Fleming 33:52
Did you make any changes to your life after that experience?
Jens Kristensen 33:57
I think that I made changes to my life, mentally, in being less worried about small things. You know, I think we all have our worries and concerns and irritations. And I think those smaller things are less of a concern now. I mean, of course, you need to address issues, you need to address problems, you need to address concerns that are related to work or to make your life function and stuff like that. But they don't necessarily need to cause you stress or bother.
Melissa Fleming 34:51
If you look back on your career, would you make the same choices today? Would you have gone to Haiti, for instance?
Jens Kristensen 35:00
Yes, I would. Yes, I would have gone. I would have done the assistance. I would have entered into these conflict zones, post-conflict areas, humanitarian assistance. Leaving Haiti, I went to the next emergency which was Iraq, I didn't lose the spirit.
Melissa Fleming 35:30
You know, many people who would have gone through something as harrowing as what you did five days in a coffin-like situation, very confined, and without food or drink and not knowing whether you would be rescued, they would have gone through some serious mental health issues or PTSD. Is there something about your nature or about the way that you managed to train your mind that allowed you to just, it seems that you've managed to move on?
Jens Kristensen 36:08
I think that having been in war zones and natural disasters trying to also come up with solutions, through creativity, probably has given me a certain ballast to tackle this specific situation. It's also a mentality, the issue of, you never know how you will react before you are in the situation. I apparently react in a situation where I am able to control my claustrophobic tendencies, or whatever, and act rationally. I think also that after the event, I talked about it. I gave a number of interviews. Of course, coming out alive without any physical or mental wound was a miracle. It was something that the world was interested in. I think being able to also rework it, talk about it, digest it, has also helped mentally. It got out and through that, I was able to maybe express the feelings, express whatever happened during the five days and that has allowed me to cope with the mental stress and the potential consequences that this event would have happened.
Melissa Fleming 38:33
Well, yes, thank you so much. Indeed, you've given all of us hope. And we're so happy that you survived and continued to serve on behalf of some of the world's most vulnerable people. So I really appreciate you sharing your story with us here, Jens and from Mali, thank you very much.
Jens Kristensen 38:55
Thank you for having me.
Melissa Fleming 39:05
Thank you for listening to Awake At Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at a time of global crisis. To find out more about the series, and the extraordinary people featured, do visit un.org-awake-at-night. On Twitter, we're @UN and I'm @melissafleming. Subscribe to Awake At Night wherever you get your podcasts and please take the time to review us, it does make a difference.
Thanks to my producers, Bethany Bell, and the team at Chalk & Blade: Laura Sheeter, Fatuma Khaireh, and Alex Portfelix, and to my colleagues at the UN, Roberta Politi, Darrin Farrant, Geneva Damayanti, Hilary He, Tulin Battikhi, and Bissera Kostova.
Special thanks to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for their support. The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah, and produced by Ben Hillier. The sound design and additional music was by Pascal Wyse.