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Not Enough Time
August 20, 2004
Twice a week, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) volunteers travel to Deleig, a small village in the western part of the Darfur region of Sudan. As of late-July some 20,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) live there, having fled violence from pro-government militia. The mobile team has its hands full, as heavy rains have worsened the situation for the IDPs.
One minute per child at the most. That's all the time Suan Chua, an MSF nurse, can spare for each individual, as she still has more than 160 patients in the arms of their mothers who are lining up outside the feeding center. She routinely checks to see whether they are gaining weight "on schedule," takes their temperature and sometimes their pulse. "One portion of CSB [corn-soy blend] for little Halima here!" she calls to her Sudanese colleagues. Then Suan Chua beckons the next mother and child to come forward. Suan Chua is trying to make up for the time lost in the morning when the MSF vehicles got stuck in the mud caused by the heavy rains. "That's why it's particularly hectic today," says Suan Chua. "But I still enjoy the work. It's terribly important that we look after the children."
The team in the MSF feeding center in Deleig primarily focuses its attentions on the children, who are often not only malnourished, but also ill. If there are symptoms that suggest the child has malaria or pneumonia, Dean Harris, MSF phyisician, is called over. He diagnoses the case of two-year-old Bahar: inflammation of the epipharynx and dehydration. He prescribes antibiotics and impresses upon the mother that she should give her daughter plenty of liquids.
"This little one will be fit again in a matter of days," Dr. Harris tells her encouragingly. He is more worried about the countless children suffering from diarrhea, which, in the case of exhausted and malnourished children can be fatal.
The cause of the diarrhea is probably unclean drinking water-a problem the team is already trying to address. Dawn Taylor, an MSF water and sanitation specialist, has cleaned a well in the village, and the water is now being pumped into two large plastic tanks. Together, they can hold 20,000 liters of water to supply 36 taps, and will now provide a source of clean drinking water for around 5,000 people. The displaced people in Deleig still have to cope with appalling conditions. Many have built makeshift shelters using sticks and bamboo. Some have managed to get their hands on plastic sheeting, which they have used to build tent-like structures housing up to ten people. Others however, are left at the mercy of the wind and sand, and now the rains, which arrived a couple of weeks ago. What's more, those who managed to survive the militia-led massacres and being driven out of their looted villages are still not safe.
"Many womenâ€”and even young girlsâ€”are raped as they go in search of food and firewood," says midwife Christina Ambrose. MSF treats victims of sexual violence in Deleig and offers them psychological support. MSF uses a three-part protocol for treating rape victims: drugs to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, emergency contraception, and post-exposure prophylaxis with the anti-retrovirals lamiduvine and AZT to prevent HIV infection.
The topic of sexual violence is taboo in Sudan and only a few women have sought out treatment in Deleig. "But now more and more women are relating what they have been through," says Ambrose. "We can't undo what's been done, but we can at least lend a sympathetic ear and treat them for sexually transmitted diseases."
At around three in the afternoon, it is time for the MSF team to leave. For security reasons, they have to get back to Garsilla, where they are based, before nightfall. The journey takes a long time, as the roads have become muddy during the rainy season and are therefore often difficult to drive on. Once more, they pass by the abandoned ruins of the villages from where many of the people have fled.