Work (and lives), interrupted

26 November 2009

When I signed up to work with MSF I wasn’t naïve enough to expect an easy ride or a soft experience. This organisation, by very specific intention, works in some of the most challenging contexts on earth: war zones, natural disasters and other humanitarian crises of all kinds. Despite the very real feeling of reward I get from doing this, I knew it was going to be a difficult job, a frustrating job, a demanding job and that at times I would be disheartened. I was right, for it has been all these things and more over the past few months. What I was not prepared for, and what has been hard to accept, is not being able to do my work at all.

As you may well know from following the news, there has been a dramatic rise recently in the number of violent attacks in Pakistan. Markets, police stations, army barracks, and even schools have been targeted and many have been killed and injured. This is devastating not just for all the victims and their families but for the country as a whole and, potentially, for the world at large. The ever-rising tensions here have implications far beyond the borders of this damaged land. North West Frontier Province (NWFP) where we work is one of the frontlines in the global war against terror and the events of recent weeks only add fuel to a fire of reciprocity that is already raging out of control.

Foreigners and NGO can also be direct or indirect victims of the ongoing conflict. MSF takes the safety and security of staff very seriously so as to limit as far as possible the likelihood of our personnel and medical activities being affected by violence. If an attack did directly involve MSF personnel or structures however, aspects of our work here would undoubtedly be suspended or drastically reduced. So, while we are here, at least in part, to help to alleviate some of the fallout from the ongoing violence, it is entirely possible that the violence itself could be precisely the reason we are unable to achieve this goal.

At this stage, we have not been directly affected by the current wave of incidents but, for the sake of caution, the movements and visibility of the staff on my project have been dramatically reduced and the expatriates had to go back to Islamabad for a few days – and so we come to the reason for my interrupted (and frustrated!) status…

Of course, I understand the rationale behind the restrictions and I am grateful to be working for an organisation that cares enough to impose them but, to be here in the midst of all this need and not be able to help directly (even if it is only for a couple of days) is hard to accept.

We will hopefully be back to normal medical activities soon. In the meantime, though, I find myself reflecting on the fragility of our efforts here. As long as this seemingly intractable conflict continues, there will almost certainly be a need for our presence in NWFP. Sadly though, precisely because of this same conflict, our position and contribution could all too easily be ripped away – both as individuals and as an organisation – by a bullet or bomb. A tragic irony indeed…

I am left to hope that, somehow, real and lasting change can come to this situation. And, considering the systems, ideas and people which are involved in what is an incredibly complex set of problems that exemplify much that is wrong with our world, I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that this is a challenge within which we all have a role. If hope is all we can justify at this stage, then as long as it is hope backed up by determined action, I think there is a chance. What do you think?