January 2004, the temperature was - 7 °C and winds were blowing at 100 km/h. Not a place you’d put a dog out let alone a group of trainee soldiers from hot African countries. In the bitter cold of the 2600 Restefond pass in the Southern Alps the order was given: “dig or die”. Two officers perished in the storm and another two were rescued “in-extremis”, one in a hypodermic coma. Three officers were before the military division of the Marseille criminal court this week accused of manslaughter and breaching health and safety regulations.
On the 12th of January 2004, 91 trainee officers of the elite Saint-Cyr military school set out for 3 days of mountain combat training. Saint-Cyr has a reputation for putting its trainees through difficult situations. This was their first trip to the mountains, some had never before seen snow. At 1.30pm Commander Christian Heintz of the CIECM (Mountain combat and training center) changed the program in light of the poor weather. The troop would continue on snow shoes to sleep in the relative warmth of the barracks on the Restefond. They would cover in a single day what has been programmed for two. A decision, according to an expert that was “incoherent and unreasonable”. Especially considering another group had cancelled a similar exercise due to the conditions. The commander took the lead at full speed, the soldiers followed as best they could. One of the sections asked to turn back. Request refused.
At 17h30 is was obvious they wouldn’t make it to the refuge. They were lost. The only hope, digging snow holes to ride out the storm. However this was not in the plan and the soldiers were not prepared, certainly not at 5.30pm in failing light in the middle of a winter storm. Some of the trainees, who had already marched 10 hours with rucksacks weighing 20kgs were exhausted. For the 90 soldiers there was one medical orderly.
Exhausted Laouali Karimoune collapsed. “He had been annoying me for an hour”, one of the leaders told the court “he didn’t want to protect himself… he let himself go”. Despite heart massage he died shortly after 11pm. The rescue services were not called, the officers were occupied with trying to keep the other trainees alive. Over three hours would pass before they were eventually informed. 3 hours that would prove fatal for another trainee, Kondi Nandja, son of military chief of Togo. Nandja was “delirious, he had opened his coat and removed his gloves, then he fell unconscious, his lips were white with saliva”, he died shortly afterwards. “The two fatalities didn’t eat properly” according to Captain Lefebvre the second in command. “Everyone has their own responsibility… the Africans didn’t the same survival instincts compared to Europeans”. One of the defendant’s lawyers put forward the notion “that Africans didn’t want to enter the snow cave on the grounds of superstition”. An argument that didn’t impress the court. The army’s internal report “highlighted the difficulty of managing African trainees that were not used to the cold”. An investigation by the Mountain Police went further, the trainees were insufficiently equipped and had to buy their own winter clothing, if they could afford it.
For the army, lieutenant-colonel Heintz had not committed any fault, he had even been promoted since the deaths. Lefebre told the court “I wouldn’t have changed any of my decisions, I did what I thought best”. The prosecutor replied “That scares me a bit”. Commander Christian Heintz and Capitan Pascal Lefebvre have been sentenced to 9 and 6 month prison terms respectively. The sentences were suspended. They both received a fine of 1400 euros. However these sentences will not be shown on their military record.