“What are you doing? There are people here!”

Tens of thousands of people remain stuck in extreme conditions at the north-eastern border between Jordan and Syria. Médecins Sans Frontières has been calling for immediate recovery of the humanitarian aid for the people stuck there as well as international protection for them.

Photo: DFID - UK Department for International Development

When we first come back, we sit at the diner and I ask Daniel how his day at the office was. The rest of us have just come back from Rubakan, a place we often go – or more precisely, from the military base nearby. It is called the “Berm” in English. 1

Dan replies that his day was more or less uneventful. Translation: nothing extraordinary happened. You may have noticed that Daniel is British. Who else would use such a term? Well, a week has passed since that time, and it has been all but uneventful. Even for Daniel.

Every visit to the “Berm” last week lasted no longer than two hours. It’s not much. There are plenty of patients, and we never manage to treat all of them. I help with dressings. Many children come with bruises and lacerations due to yesterday’s riots. Stones were thrown again, and these kids got injured during the violence. The stones here are sharp and some of the children have lacerations on their heads or faces. Today we failed to maintain restricted entrance during the closing process and all the people have poured in. Simply chaos.

In all that chaos, a woman comes up to me from the crowd. Maybe the same age as me, she kisses my face and takes my hand. She thanks me in Arabic. But she has not been treated today. The queue was too long. I tell her to come tomorrow, that we will be here again. But her eyes. She points at the sky and says “five” while miming eating food. Do I understand correctly that she has not eaten for five days? I don’t know. Hopefully she will come tomorrow.

And she does. She pulls on my sleeve in the morning, she hugs me and kisses me on my face and lips. But I do not have much time for her today. I hope that we will be able to help her with her medical condition. Another woman is waiting for me outside. She is fifteen and her husband’s family beats her. There are so many young women like her here. They come with bruises. They have usually lost all their family, no one left, and thus some man marries them.

In a moment, one of our doctors waves at me and sends me a father who holds his daughter in his arms. She is probably ten. She is slightly dehydrated and overheated. No surprise. The temperature has climbed to 45-48 degrees Celsius after lunch during the last several days. Moreover, the humidity is approximately 1% here. Well… maybe slightly higher, but I still feel like I have my head stuck in a heated oven. I am surprised that we do not have more patients like her. Even so, there are plenty of them. Children, adults. It is the month of Ramadan and some adults follow the Ramadan strictures, meaning they neither eat nor drink, even in these horrible conditions.

Suddenly, the radio emits a code – the one for evacuation. I only manage to carry the girl out and lay her with her infusion in the back of a lorry, in the shadows. Hopefully, we will be allowed to come back. We close the lorries, leave them on the spot and drive in our other cars a bit farther away. Daniel is the boss for today, and after several phone calls and assurances, we decide as a team that we will stay for a bit longer today and continue to work. We have been here for only an hour. We still have time and there are plenty of patients waiting. Everything runs slowly and sort of quietly around us, as if something is in the offing. Someone from the Red Cross comes. I stand with Daniel in front of our fence and strike up a conversation. He expresses his admiration of how we have organised everything. I reply, “Well, I still see shortcomings here. But the fact is, it is working.”

And then we hear the shooting. I can see that it is right next to the water tanks, only a very short distance from us. Before I know what I’m doing, I’m handing two small children to Hussein in a trench behind the wall, which is right behind our trucks. There are several children around me. I do not know where they came from. They are holding onto my pants. They are all screaming. I give one after another to Hussein. Finally, it is me jumping down. I look back and I see an eight-year-old girl. I give her my hand and suddenly a four-year-old boy jumps into my arms.

He is running helter-skelter, wearing a green T-shirt, his mouth wide open and screaming, and his big brown eyes… I have never seen so much fear in anyone’s eyes before. He holds me around my neck, and I sit down with him on the ground. I have a few kids around me. I can see that there are also others from the team here. The only thing I can do is to keep everybody around me. Now I realize that even though it is only shooting into the air, they have seen worse. They are struck by fear which is completely palpable.

This all lasts for only a moment. I hear a command: “Everybody to the car.” It means that I have to leave this little guy in the green shirt here. Today the situation here is very grave. That minute of our embrace was a moment of safety for him in this chaos. But I have to go. We all run to the car at the same time. When I tell Daniel everyone is inside, we go. Then we stop a bit farther away and observe what is going on.

Incredible. The guy who helps us organise people is standing in front of a pharmacy and guarding it, so nothing is lost. It is a moment that makes you want to cry with joy when you see that there are people who are helping, although they themselves need help. Everyone is leaving for the military base. Each of us is surely thinking about something else. We have not suffered any physical harm, and it seems we have escaped harm to our souls as well – however, that may still occur.

I wonder if any of our local staff will give up this job. Although they knew the situation and were aware that something like this might happen, there is a difference between hearing about it and experiencing it first-hand. At any rate, I would close this day with a universally valid statement: “What are you doing? There are people here!”

 

The article was published in Czech on the website Lékaři bez hranic (Médecins Sans Frontières).

Notes:

  1. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) operated a mobile health clinic at Jordan’s north-eastern border in the desert area known as the “Berm” for 23 days starting from 16 May, to provide primary health care and reproductive health care. The majority of patients were women and children under five. During this time, MSF saw 3,501 patients, provided consultations to 450 pregnant women and delivered one baby. Five months have passed since Jordan sealed its borders with Syria, a decision that has seriously impacted the access of over 75,000 Syrians, three-quarters of them women and children, to basic quality medical care. Stuck in the desert for over two years, humanitarian actors had been unable to provide proper assistance even before the border closure, a situation which has become even more dismal. The humanitarian and health situation of the Syrians stranded at the “Berm” is expected to further deteriorate in the coming months as they face a second winter. In response, MSF again reiterates calls for direct access to those stranded at the Berm in order to assess and respond to their medical needs and ensure the equal provision of quality medical care.
Jitka Kosíková

Jitka Kosíková

is a medical nurse with rich experience in foreign humanitarian missions in South Sudan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Jordan, mostly as a member of the Médecins Sans Frontières team.