After exiting the hospital for the last time, and seated next to the man who will be my driver for the next three hours of the trip to Sanaa, my emotions are particularly intense. The crush of having to say good-bye grips my heart, and the feeling is not especially pleasant. Once on the road, my mind travels back to when I arrived, when I had no idea where I was going to end up or with whom I was going to share the inevitable memorable moments of a first experience with MSF. Almost seven months later, past events flash through my mind like vivid reminders of a movie's highlights, when the lights come back on after the closing credits. All that's left now are a few debriefings and an evening in Sanaa before I come to the end of the Yemen page, and by then it will already be time to shoot it.
In a discussion one Friday afternoon that we had off, Bea explained to me that her first mission had allowed her to learn how to say goodbye. Learn how to say goodbye? Really? Somebody send me the manual on associated emotional management. At age 34, it's time to admit that I haven't mastered all the lines.
I think of all the expats who have come and gone over these many months, to whom I have said "See you next time," perhaps out of politeness and probably because it wasn’t as hard to say. It is apparently far from rare to again come across someone that you knew in the theatre of our field operations, either here or elsewhere.
But I am thinking especially of all the members of our national staff, who are much larger in number, and to whom I had spoken just a few hours earlier, with barely concealed emotion.
I am trying to hold on to the thought that one day I will return to see all these people in a Yemen that is at peace. It helps counteract the dreaded goodbyes. But for now, it is difficult for me to leave behind women and men with whom I have experienced so many, sometimes delicate, events, often filled with challenges. How can I not feel anything when I turn my back on these colleagues who have opened the doors of their culture to me, when I leave all those teachers who taught me life lessons on an almost daily basis? As a people of endless generosity, the Yemenis have this rather incredible strength of being able to temper such a brutal context with their unending resilience. With their help, I have often been able to forget the environment of conflict that surrounds us. I wonder what the future holds for them, at a time when the signs of a permanent ceasefire are still deeply mired in the complexities of a war that has gone on for far too long. This will cease one day, Insh'Allah, and I will be able to see Hajjah, the mountain city to which I am now forever linked, under different skies.
We cross this river, calmed by a reduced flow, that has almost completely dried up—a metaphor for my current state. Seven months on the water have left their mark. After being plunged quickly into the mission, I learned that one should never try to row against the current in a culture where one is not familiar with the codes… that there was no point in firmly opposing the local customs, and that one needs to increase one's flexibility and adaptability. But you sometimes needed to expend a great deal of energy to keep the boat afloat, when the fast currents of the situation, especially when it comes to Covid, sometimes threatened your guiding principles. And, despite being able to take a break in Sanaa to recharge my batteries halfway through the trip, my oars had gradually deteriorated due to the wear and tear of the trials without my having realizing it. Suddenly, when it came to August, mental fatigue allowed the dangers of irritability, impatience, demotivation and nervousness to enter my boat. I was much less able to manoeuver through the obstacles, trapped by negative thoughts threatening my entire equilibrium.
Fortunately, this period, described as something that is normal by all my expat colleagues, lasted only a short time. With the help of a second respite stay in the capital and with the prospect of being able to see the light at the end of the mission, and by also being able to move to a new house for all the expats on 1 September. Having ended our full-time stint at the hospital, we can now embrace the sensation of greater freedom, something that is so essential to our mental health.
These last few weeks have helped to further strengthen my ability to deal with the unexpected. In a final justification of its being called one of the most difficult countries in the world to access, the Houthi authorities announced on September 9 that the Sana'a airport would be closed for an indefinite period, halting the only remaining flights, including those from the UN, the International Red Cross and, therefore, from MSF. After having waited for so long to get here, I am having to wait to get out. Fortunately, I have learned that in Yemen nothing really happens according to plan, and that there is little point in focusing on things outside our sphere of influence anyway. After weeks in which the finish line looked like a mirage in the middle of the desert, I finally learned on September 26th that the airport would be reopening, and that my seat on the plane on October 1st would be confirmed.
The landscapes scroll past the window and in the heat of the moment, I realise that dealing with uncertainty is perhaps one of the greatest lessons in personal development ever learned. In the toolkit of keys to the success of my experience, managing the stress associated with it has surely opened the door for me. Not too far away, the lock to learning about a new life in which the perception of time is different, in which the weeks follow one after the other, and the prospects for occupying one's free time are all the same. There's not much to look forward to, such as a reunion with friends or an upcoming concert. Freedom of movement is almost non-existent, the few outings being limited to a bit of shopping in the small supermarket next door or having a mango juice around the corner for want of something more exciting. Never alone and always according to schedule. Time on a mission passes both quickly and slowly, and adjusting to this strange feeling can sometimes be difficult. The time here has given me an excellent opportunity to discover activities that until now have taken up very little space on my life’s calendar. I was surprised to find myself flipping through the pages of books much more often, increasing the amount of time devoted to sports, and letting out my thoughts on the computer, all with the sound of the daily chants emanating from the nearby mosque in the background. And often enjoying just being alone.
I am happy to have gotten to know myself a little bit better, maintaining a form of serenity and lucidity at a time when many signals had the potential to undermine these feelings. I am reassured to discover how strong my wings are without having to lose too many feathers on my first experience flying over the unknown.
So there it is ... I can see Sana'a in the distance. The end of my journey is at hand. The prospect of being reunited with my loved ones is a sweet sensation, and this helps soften the fact that it will soon be time to say goodbye forever to the country that has been my host for the last several months, in the theatre of a wonderful adventure. But right now, I refuse to be a good student and learn how to say it out loud. "See you next time," ... that really sounds better.