Week in the Life, Saturday: 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 sixth journal entry over the course of one week.
A day of contrasts. *DA looks abandoned. The main dirt road runs through the centre of what must have been a populous and lively town. The houses are densely packed and close to the road. All the doors are shut tight, several of them with padlocks. Just a few people here and there. And then, 200 metres beyond the far side of town, the clinic and the crowd are immediately visible. Again, hundreds.
And then, 200 metres beyond the far side of town, the clinic and the crowd are immediately visible. Again, hundreds.
The clinic has three large blocks, each with about eight rooms. MSF has cleaned up most of one block and gotten five functional consultation rooms and a makeshift pharmacy out of it. Every room in the rest of the centre is trashed and sitting, apparently, exactly as it was the day the military went room by room flipping furniture, spilling medicines, breaking glass and dumping papers. On one of the walls written in black paint is a note warning the residents that they will be eaten up by the next military group to take over. The intent behind the words and the destruction is palpable.
After helping set up, I walk through town accompanied by a local man about my age and our driver who speaks just enough English to translate. We end up on the west side of town looking at graves. One with three bodies, another with two, four. Then a two-metre round hole that I’m told was a latrine. It’s full and I can only see rocks and a few empty water bottles at the surface. The local man says 30 bodies are under the rocks. I feel numb and look around. There are flip flops, sandals and scraps of clothing. The man keeps talking. He’s pointing to where he says the people were forced to lie face-down and then shot. There are bullet casings. He says the bodies had to be burnt before they would fit in the hole.
Shit. I need to be alone for a while. There’s a monastery not far away. I ask the driver to take me. The grounds are expansive, serene and hugged by ancient trees. A stream runs next to a tomb, which, judging by its decoration, must be for an important priest. The church is brightly painted in Ethiopian green, yellow and red. It’s an octagon, if I’m counting the sides right, and lying all around the outside are smooth walking sticks. But no one is inside; are they the abandoned canes of those now cured of their disabilities? That feels hopeful and so different from what I felt an hour ago.
Later, back at the health centre it feels like we are barely making a dent. By 1 p.m., there are still about 250 people waiting. But the medics are hard at it. No food. No breaks.
Later, back at the health centre it feels like we are barely making a dent. By 1 p.m., there are still about 250 people waiting. But the medics are hard at it. No food. No breaks. Military curfew is at 7 p.m. in Shire so we have to use every minute. It’s the same everywhere; the needs are overwhelming. We need to do more; we need more people, more cars and more medicines. And still it can’t possibly be enough. It’s so inadequate. It’s something though.
*To protect communities and individuals affected by the conflict as well as MSF staff, some place and person names have been changed.