Homage to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)

The US bombing of the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) trauma center in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on October 3, 2015, brought MSF to everyone’s attention. Thus far a total of 30 people are confirmed dead, including 13 MSF staff members and 27 staff are injured. MSF’s 94-bed trauma center was destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people in the region will be without surgical care. This hospital was the only facility of its kind in northeastern Afghanistan. With more than 400 staff, last year more than 22,000 patients received care at the hospital and more than 5,900 surgeries were performed. Yet most people had never heard of this hospital until they saw its collapsed roofs and other wreckage on TV. The U.S. investigation of what happened on Oct. 3 and why continues.

Everywhere that my research for NexGen Coin has probed for insights into what’s happening on the ground in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Africa, refugee routes into Europe and elsewhere, MSF was there looking after the needs of victims of war and poverty, and not just their medical problems. Frankly, it’s both inspiring and heartbreaking, especially MSF’s constant need to solicit donations. For example, in the midst of thousands of refugees and migrants in Serbia, stranded by delays at border crossings and registration points across the Balkans, MSF is providing health and other assistance to refugees, including thousands of pregnant women, babies, young children, and elderly people exposed to extremely harsh weather and, soon, winter conditions with potentially life-threatening implications.

I watched a video of more than a thousand families, children and the elderly, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, spending the night under plastic sheets outdoors with no shelter from the cold and rain at a transit point from Serbia to Croatia. Elsewhere, close to the border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, an average of 5,000 people pass through every day, often waiting in a queue for hours in the rain, many needing treatment for hypothermia. What are they all looking for that makes elderly people, families with babies as young as two weeks old, women in late stages of pregnancy, and others willing to go through these ordeals? “To live somewhere in peace.”

“To live in a country where the government treats us like human beings.”

In case the rest of the world needs a reminder, Serbian winters can be bitterly cold, with temperatures dropping as low as five degrees Fahrenheit. MSF is preparing for a large number of patients, recruiting more medical staff and increasing its stocks of tents, blankets, raincoats, and winter clothing. Hygiene conditions tend to deteriorate during winter as people cannot easily find places to bathe and wash clothes, leading to an increase in skin diseases and lice infections, so MSF is also preparing hygiene kits.

While Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and the U.S. ponder next steps in Yemen’s civil war, (see NexGen COIN, Chap. 10: Lessons Learned in Yemen), MSF cannot deliver essential medical supplies to several hospitals in the besieged city of Taiz, in Southern Yemen, because Houthi checkpoints deny access. Houthi rebels have attacked supporters of exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Saudi-led Arab coalition air strikes targeted the Houthis, all of which killed and wounded many civilians, which has been the pattern of warfare in Yemen. (See Blog Post #8)

The arms embargo on Yemen implemented by the Saudi-led coalition and the UN has turned into a de facto general blockade and led to countrywide critical shortages of food and fuel. A large part of the population of Taiz is displaced within the city and struggling for their daily survival. Taiz formerly had 20 hospitals for its population of more than 600,000. Today only six continue to function, often only partially, and are overwhelmed by the high numbers of wounded people seeking access to their emergency services on a daily basis. As usual, MSF will look after them.