In Switzerland, fallout shelters are hidden under many public buildings and private residences, enough to accommodate the entire population of the country in the event of an armed conflict. The war in Ukraine has revived interest in this unique system, both nationally and internationally.
“On the one hand, it generates jealousies; on the other hand, disbelief, because we are taken a bit for crazy with that, ”launches Louis-Henri Delarageaz, laughing, in his office at the Center cantonal d’instruction, in Gollion.
It is with humor that the commander of the Vaud Civil Protection sets the table for a half-day visit to this French-speaking rural town near Lausanne. On site, there are examples of several types of protection works, which have been built slowly, but surely, since the Second World War.
Switzerland may be very small and officially neutral, but it is probably one of the countries whose population is best prepared for a possible war. Among other things, military service is compulsory for young men. Since 1963, a federal law also requires that each inhabitant – a population of nine million today – has a protected place near his home. All new private residential constructions must comply, depending on the number of habitable rooms, unless they obtain an exemption and pay a tax of 800 Swiss francs per place in order to subsidize collective structures. Larger shelters are provided under public buildings, such as schools.
Expressive, frank and funny, Mr. Delarageaz put on his gray and orange Civil Protection uniform to introduce the Duty the public shelter located under the administrative building of his employer. He pulls on a first all-white armored door, which can be locked from the inside, to enter the decontamination airlock. “A person entering the shelter would stay here for 12 minutes, with the aim of eliminating the radioactive dust. It’s air rinsing, with overpressure,” explains the Helvetian commander with fairly close-shaven hair.
Mr. Delarageaz then passes through a second door and finds himself in the reinforced concrete premises designed to accommodate a hundred people, at the rate of one square meter per individual.
By scanning the space with your eyes, you can quickly recognize the infrastructure required for any good protective structure, first and foremost the ventilation system. “The air comes in from outside and, in the event of an armed conflict, a filter is connected. It’s the same as the one on gas masks,” he says, tapping a machine plugged into the austere gray wall.
An opening of a few feet is traced in the middle of the wall, covered with a secure door. When you open it, you come across a tunnel several meters long at the end of which the sun’s rays pierce. It’s the emergency exit.
Three stories of beds with thin mattresses are stacked in the middle of the room. Cabins equipped with buckets and garbage bags serve as toilets. “It’s survival aid, it’s not a hotel,” the guide warns with a smirk. “We are not considering an occupation of more than a fortnight, depending on the quantity of drinking water and food that people will take with them. »
One of the largest public shelters in the canton is the Beaulieu Convention Center parking lot in Lausanne; it can accommodate more than 3400 people. However, the uninformed motorist has no idea of the purpose of the place, which at first sight looks like a standard parking lot. But some signs don’t lie: the red armored doors, the electrical outlets in the walls, the entrances to the ventilation system, the Civil Protection logo. “Armored shutters make it possible to stop the entry of cars. Below, we have a kitchen, a room full of air filters, dismantled beds, ”explains the specialist.
Private shelters are even more basic, but they have the advantage of potentially bringing together only a small number of neighbors. Most of them have been turned into storage rooms by their owners. “People put their bottles of wine, their bikes, their skis, their old boxes there,” says Delarageaz.
Worthy of a horror movie
In addition to shelters intended for the general public, the Swiss territory is crisscrossed by command posts intended to coordinate emergency services, warehouses to preserve cultural property and makeshift hospitals with dozens of rooms, all housed in bunkers. . The latter are more sophisticated, since they store enough water and generator fuel to last 15 days. There is also medical and sanitary equipment from another age, but still functional.
“We brought out some of it during the pandemic, in particular textiles to make overcoats for hospital and ambulance staff, since we could no longer get supplies through the usual channels”, recalls Mr. Delarageaz, strolling in a gloomy underground health facility where it would be appropriate to “shoot zombie movies”.
The purpose of all these developments is to protect its occupants from the effects of an atomic bomb falling on or near Switzerland. “We can sound the sirens to warn people of an attack. After a while, we raise the alert and everyone comes out. That’s what it’s for, ”explains the commander. They have so far only been used for training purposes, fortunately.
The return of nuclear risk
The war in Ukraine, about 2000 kilometers away, has revived the fears of the Swiss population. In the months following the outbreak of the conflict, the Vaud Civil Protection was inundated with calls from citizens anxious to know where they belonged in a shelter. “Putin waved his nuclear warheads. In addition, this guy is unpredictable, so, inevitably, the average citizen was scared”, notes the commander, adding that “the threat is still very real”.
Mr. Delarageaz also knows that nationals of neighboring countries, such as France, have been informed and equipped in Switzerland to build their own private shelter.
The latter reminds us that his country of mountains, cheese and chocolate, given its size and position, is within range of an air attack and can be quickly wiped off the map. “Is it useful? We will know when we need it. What is certain is that it is better than those who don’t have one,” says Mr. Delarageaz.
We hope never to get an answer to this question.
This report was financed thanks to the support of the Transat International Journalism Fund.The duty.