a fever is the most comfortable thing in the world to slip into. it is like someone has covered you all over with fine, warm gauze. you are never so content to lie motionless, thoughtless, needless. you don't want water, food, or comfort. you sweat through jagged half dreams cutting violently from one to the other and no cares penetrate your hot cocoon.
there are exceptions. one of them is when you sleep near a handset that crackles alive after midnight with "compound one for hospital." you are already half awake, but you don't move. perhaps the sleeping half is having a half-dream. the call comes again, and shortly after it, a guard raps on your door.
"ok... ok..." you say, and toss the wet sheet aside, fumble beside the dark bed for the radio. "hospital, go ahead."
"... doctor james... uh... we have a patient here... a patient of gunshot... a soldier..."
normally, at this point in the evening, particularly with the halfness, you would try to get more information over the handset and see if your presence was necessary. with a gunshot, you know the best time to go is now. since your conversations are not private, there is a limit to what you can discuss over the radio. the only question you need answered is:
"are there many soldiers in the hospital?"
you tangle blindly through the mosquito net, find your stethoscope and the pharmacy keys, walk to the car and wake the driver. you tell him that you need to go the hospital. there is a gunshot. a soldier. you are not sure why you are telling him, but you think he should know, just in case. in case of what? you don't know. in case this wasn't just an isolated, personal incident, the singular result to the equation of the number of guns in the area, multiplied by alcohol, multiplied by circumstance. in case this is the beginning of something much larger, the index case for an outbreak of gunshots that will sweep through abyei. he nods sleepily, rubs his eyes. you might have told him you were going to buy biscuits.
you touch your forehead as you climb into the car. it feels hot. you ask him to touch it. he does, and pulls his hand away, and shakes his head in disapproval. the two of you pull out of the compound, and turn right. the distance is short, and you have walked it many tmes. it takes you past one of four military compounds in the area. as you pass it, you hold your breath, your half dreams wondering what it would be to see a short, bright burst of gunfire light up your last thought.
this thought was not always so close. once, being a humanitarian carried with it a certain privilege: if you declared yourself as one, you were not a target, not even on the battlefield. it is why henri dunant started putting red crosses on the backs of the people dragging soldiers off the field in 1864, and why those of us working for MSF get teased by other NGO's for the logo'd t-shirts we wear everywhere. it marks us. it says we are here only to help, we are not part of the war; we take care of the sick. in some countries, this "humanitarian space" is all the room we have.
it is being slowly eroded. particularly in the past five years. several MSF workers were killed in afghanistan in 2005. a young woman working for MSF on her first mission, elsa serfass, was killed last month in central african republic. in recent years, it appears a shift has occurred. the red crosses and msf logos no longer provide as much protection. some don't see them, and to others, they look like bullseyes, a sign of wealth, and of resources. more worrisome, they can mark us as a potential pawn in a larger game. with one swift stroke, they drive help away from their enemy. combine this with a deft political turn, and they can cast blame on the other side and manipulate public sentiment.
once this humanitarian space falls away, it cannot be rebuilt. the newer wars will have no memory of it, and for those of us whose only protection is this invisible margin of saftety, we are left defenseless.
this space is not only for us. it provides room to breathe for the innocent on either side. one of the reasons the roads are safe at night is because if they are not, if we are threatened, we will leave. the hospital, once full of armed soldiers, is now a place where people feel safe because every time someone refuses to check their grenade at the door, we evacuate. all of us. we demand the space, and with it comes air for everyone.
it is why we continue to refuse association with governments and military, anyone with guns. it is why we feel that "militarizing humanitarian corridors" is a contradiction, and resist it. we need people to remember that space. desperately. and not just for us.
so, that is what you think, gravel crunching under your slow tires, as you pull up to the gate. the hospital seems quiet, not the usual mêlée of multiple casualties. you grab two paracetamol from the nursing room and swallow them, and walk into the emergency room. a soldier has been shot in the arm and chest. by his brother. an outcome of an argument. though this is not good news, not for either of you (couldn't it have been the foot?), it is not the sign of a hell of a lot imminent bad news. you insert a chest tube, repair his arm, and because he won't stop bleeding, you begin the frustrating call for blood donors.
it is a long night, but in it, you find all the space you need.
More Info : MSF's press releases surrounding 27 year old Elsa Serfass' death
11 June 2007 : MSF aid worker killed in the Central African Republic