Week in the Life, Thursday: 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 fourth journal entry over the course of one week.
Today, we are up north of Shire in a town called *AN. The sun feels closer to the earth here, and it’s dry. People buy water from jerrycans on donkeys. If they can afford it. If not, the options aren’t good; they say the main village bore hole is contaminated.
Again, another huge crowd is waiting outside the health centre. I can’t get a reasonable count, something upwards of 300 people. And again, very few young men. Either they’re healthy, they’ve joined the fight or they are targeted. A bit later I speak with a 34-year-old woman who says her biggest “stress” is that her sons, especially the two older ones, 15 and 17, will be found and accused of being militia. Whether that accusation is true or not, it’s better for them to hide, so she hasn’t seen them in weeks.
I can’t get a reasonable count, something upwards of 300 people. And again, very few young men. Either they’re healthy, they’ve joined the fight or they are targeted.
That same woman walked two hours to get to the clinic today with her baby and her brother. They all have multiple symptoms: abdominal pain, headaches, coughing. This kind of generalized and vague set of symptoms is common and the medics not surprisingly think there’s a psychological element to it. There’s so much fear. Just about everyone I’ve spoken with these last weeks is fearful of the next attack, detention, accusation or threat. People are also anxious about food. Many livestock have been stolen or slaughtered. And normally around this time of year the government would help provide high yield seeds and fertilizer. This year, probably not. With the planting season around the corner, a potential food crisis is looming.
Later in the morning, I take a small team to assess two sites further north. The landscape is near-desert. Just small volcanic rocks and sand everywhere dotted by little shrubs and a camel here and there. I wonder what it looks like after the rains. The first clinic is completely burnt out and the roof blown off. Beds, desks, shelves, chairs and a bar-fridge sized safe burnt to charcoal versions of what they used to be. Nobody around. That’s unusual; we normally draw a crowd within minutes.
We barely poke our heads into the former clinic before about a hundred people surround us, mostly asking when the health centre will reopen.
The second place fits that norm. We barely poke our heads into the former clinic before about a hundred people surround us, mostly asking when the health centre will reopen. They also tell us about a woman who died in childbirth a few days ago. We had seen that woman in our mobile clinic last week — our nurse pieces it together recalling the name of this village. I remember too because earlier today that baby’s grandmother came to the clinic to ask what sort of milk is best for a newborn in the absence of their mother’s breastmilk.
When we get back to the clinic site, the armed groups are elusive. We see them everywhere but they don’t want to talk to us. Today is no different and the general refuses to speak to me. I had given up and then, as we are pulling out of town, I jump out to thank the local pharmacist and the town administrator who’d tried to help us meet the general. At that moment, one of them points to a man walking our way. He’s the number two. We convince him to have a chat. Friendly man with a cracked-screen mobile phone and light purple plastic sandals. Number two assures us of our staff’s safety and the protection of the health centre (parts of which are still visibly vandalized and looted by the same fighting force). Brief epilogue: the following week, number two sends a message to us via the pharmacist to please not tell the general we’d spoken and we would have no further direct contact. Elusive.
*To protect communities and individuals affected by the conflict as well as MSF staff, some place and person names have been changed.