Week in the Life, Wednesday: 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 third journal entry over the course of one week.
Today the Land Cruisers can only take us so far. The dirt road turns into a walking trail, descending down into the valley and back up to a mountain village on the other side. It’s a beautiful hike, the kind I imagine thousands of tourists have come to Tigray for under different circumstances. But that hike also means relative safety, and that’s probably the main reason why this place is still controlled by an armed group: you can clearly see anyone trying to reach the place with about 40 minutes advance warning.
It also means there’s no health facility here — not even a wrecked one — so we’re running the clinic under three trees. Last week I thought we had negotiated the use of a three-room corrugated iron-roofed structure in the village. It’s got a dirt floor, but it isn’t being used and would at least give some privacy and, in a few weeks, shelter from the rains. Today I was surprised to learn that permission was withdrawn by the senior monk, who is basically the village mayor. The reason, I’m told, is because a few weeks ago that monk asked our team for a lift back to Shire. We only transport staff and patients and need to be strict on this to avoid a slippery slope of exceptions. Apparently he’s still miffed. Isn’t it obvious that denying the use of that building hurts the people of his village more than us?
There’s no health facility here — not even a wrecked one — so we’re running the clinic under three trees.
I later try to find the senior monk by scaling the rest of the mountain to its peak about 30 minutes above this village. Up there is a monastery dating to 485CE. The grounds are small, about 70 metres by 100 metres, with a colourful church in the centre. I leave my shoes with all the others at the threshold. They are all men’s shoes; this sacred space is not gender neutral. It’s very quiet, the air is clear and the vibe is pure peace. I can’t find the senior monk — he’s away on business — but I meet a priest on the step of the church. He’s dressed immaculately in a rich royal blue robe, a white shawl and lighter blue crown-like knit hat. He has a white beard and holds a smooth cane. They tell me this man has not descended the hill in 80 years. He’s at least that old but his face is wrinkle-free and he indeed looks like someone in touch with divine powers.
Back at our open-air clinic, there’s a crowd of about 150 people, some of whom have walked from other villages two or three hours away. Pregnant women, kids of all ages, older people. Not many fighting age men — we don’t see that category of patient very often. Medically, nothing too serious; lots of aches and pains, diarrhea… but there are also two severely anemic children today.
Medical work is, of course, our core work, but it’s not the only reason for coming to all these villages across Tigray.
Medical work is, of course, our core work, but it’s not the only reason for coming to all these villages across Tigray. People repeatedly tell us our just being here means something. They say it helps them feel less forgotten, like someone cares, a little bit safer.
On the way home, we link up with our other mobile team. They have one referral for the hospital in Shire. A 15-year-old boy with shrapnel in his leg and lower lip. He rides in our car with his mother and we learn what happened. His brother had found a small explosive device near a tree. A lively conversation erupts between the boy, his mother and our team about what the explosive thing was. The best we could tell, it was something between a large bullet and a small grenade. In any case, he and his brother were playing with it and hammered it with something which set it off. Luckily his wounds are not severe.
*To protect communities and individuals affected by the conflict as well as MSF staff, some place and person names have been changed.