Week in the Life, Monday: MSF in Tigray, Ethiopia

By Joe Belliveau  

Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Executive Director Joseph Belliveau spent five weeks in March-April as a project coordinator for MSF’s mobile medical teams in Northwest Tigray, Ethiopia. This is his first journal entry over the course of one week.

Shire. It’s 7:15 a.m. and I’m savouring a curb-side coffee as the neighbourhood and my fellow coffee drinkers come alive. A camel loaded with wood logs by the cobblestone street. By 7:30 a.m. my Ethiopian colleagues are gathering, as are the Land Cruisers and other rented vehicles. It becomes a blur of morning greetings, MSF logos, car-loading and to-ing and fro-ing. Gradually, the apparent chaos takes shape and four Land Cruisers are full of the right people and goods, and the outreach team is ready to go. I can feel the energy in our team fueled by our shared purpose: getting healthcare to those who’ve lost it. I do a quick scan to make sure everyone is present and uniformed. No one leaves the base without white shirts or vests prominently displaying that distinctive MSF red logo. It makes us recognizable and distinct from other uniformed groups, especially the armed ones. It helps keep us safe, and for many the logo inspires trust. Our responsibility is to keep earning that trust, and with that thought I hop in a Land Cruiser and we head out of town. 

An hour and a half later, we’re in a town called *Z southeast of Shire. Until a couple of weeks ago, one armed group controlled it. You can still see empty tin cans, plastic bottles and fire pits – the artifacts of their base camp perched on the hill overlooking the town. Now, a different armed group has taken over. They are all around wearing everything from ill-fitting sweatpants to knit sweaters to full military fatigue. A member of an armed group has a neck injury and wants to enter the health centre, but we have a strict ‘no weapons, no uniforms’ rule. He quickly agrees to leave his AK-47 and hunting knife outside. But he explains that he has no other clothes. I ask him to find something to cover up with. He shows up a little later wrapped in a bright blue shall, which he dutifully wears throughout his consultation. We smile at one another as he receives his medication from our pharmacist.

As the person responsible for security I’m feeling uneasy.

At the end of the day, as we’re loading the Land Cruisers, one of our team says he heard a rumour about shelling to the north, our route home. On the way out, we drive cautiously, windows open, stopping to ask people if they’ve heard the unmistakably heavy sound of artillery fire. They have. One armed man at a checkpoint said he counted 55 strikes throughout the day, most likely near the junction we need to pass to get home. As the person responsible for security I’m feeling uneasy. As we get closer, we catch a pocket of mobile phone signals and team members start calling and getting calls from a nearby town. Yes, the town is being bombarded. There is ground fighting too.

As we approach the junction, rain clouds are rolling in. It’s quiet though. We round a corner and see eight soldiers at a checkpoint that wasn’t there in the morning. One approaches the driver’s side speaking forcefully, body language aggressive. He sees me — a foreigner — and his tone softens. Later my colleague tells me he was ordering them out of the car and only changed his mind when he saw me. An incident involving a foreigner is bad press.

Two more explosive artillery shots as we pass right by the canons. I feel vulnerable and intimidated.

The soldier is still looking through the driver’s window when a deafening boom pushes the scene to the background. Was it incoming or outgoing? I scan the faces of the soldiers. They haven’t changed, except one has a gleam in his eyes that I hadn’t seen a moment ago. They wave us through. Another checkpoint 50 metres ahead. One of them is overly joyful, fist-bumping and all smiles. Another opens the back door and says that he knows about a nongovernmental organization supporting an armed group— is it us? We respond that we only do medical care, for all people in need. Boom! It feels even closer. I can feel it in my chest. BOOM — another one. They wave us through. Two more explosive artillery shots as we pass right by the canons. I feel vulnerable and intimidated. It starts raining. A few hundred metres further a large open-backed truck filled with about 50 soldiers is coming our way, taking up most of the road. As they pass I can see bullet sashes on shoulders, the tips of rifles pointing in all directions and hardened faces. One has his weapon pointed down and, as we pass by, at us. Three more trucks like that, heading to the fight.

*To protect communities and individuals affected by the conflict as well as MSF staff, some place and person names have been changed.

Source: MSF Canada