Thank you from Sierra Leone

This letter was received in June 1998 from Dr/Sr. Stevens in Sierra Leone. Melbourne Overseas Mission sent some aid to assist in financing the purchase of an ambulance.

Thank you very much for your efforts on behalf of the mission here. I would be delighted to accept Melbourne Overseas Mission’s offer of $15,000.00 towards the purchase of a replacement vehicle for the clinic.

The School for the Hearing Impaired, which is also part of our work, has given over the boarders’ hall (boarders will not be coming back until at least September) and two of its classrooms for the accommodation of those injured in the most recent attacks in the villages around Makeni. The forces here have no intention of surrendering – they vow to keep fighting until they are in power or until there is no Sierra Leone.

Friday 8th there were a series of villages attacked about 14 miles from Makeni. Kaddiatu Dainkeh, the local Red Cross branch officer, and myself went out to bring in the injured. I found this more difficult than our days of ‘captivity’ during the February rampages. There were streams of people moving along the main road, everyone, including children, carrying bundles on their heads and plodding along to an uncertain welcome in the next town. The houses in the villages were still smouldering and here and there were bodies hastily covered with a lappa before the surviving family members ran. We picked up a number of people with atrocious cutlass wounds. No gunshot wounds – they must be running out of ammunition. By the time we finished the hospital was full to overflowing and we had to continue on to Magburaka hospital, another 20 miles away.

The attacks continued over the next days. The use of the school was a rapidly conceived, makeshift solution to a pressing problem. But it has turned out well. With the exception of the cook and the night guard, all the services are provided voluntarily by members of the local parish. The boys of the youth group draw water from the well in the evenings, the pupils of the school in the mornings. The girls’ group clean the hall. The women’s group does the laundering and a group of teachers are on a roster for bathing the patients. Red Cross trained volunteers do the dressings each day. A volunteer doctor who has been working here, supervises the medical side and I keep myself busy coordinating the show. Caritas has provided funds for the feeding, the Xaverian fathers let us loose on a container they had recently received, and we scrounged clothes and blankets from that. Money we had received from home enabled us to buy sleeping mats, cups, buckets, plates for these people who came with nothing.

Each patient has their own story. Three young boys (about 14 years) have had their right hands amputated. One farmer has had both hands amputated. One woman tells the story that the rebels were about to kill her three year old child. She begged for him and they told her she could have him back if she let them cut off her ears. She agreed. A 16 year old boy walked 5 days to find help. His hand had been amputated, and he had had to leave his more severely injured companions in the bush when they were no longer able to walk. And so it goes on.

The rebels also take hostages with them from each village to be used as shields restricting ECOMOG forces in attacks on rebel bases.

The clinic has got back to almost normal functioning. However the epilepsy program has been severely curtailed, with only the Makeni segment of it still optional.

I was very impressed with the staff’s deliberations prior to our reopening. We know the clinic had been looted twice – once by the rebels and once by the local people. It was the latter that caused the most anger in the staff. They were in a dilemma. We were coming into malaria and diarrhoea season and the absence of clinical services would primarily affect the children. As our second emergency store had not been found in the general looting, we were the only clinic in a position to restart almost immediately. However, if we were to seek outside funds to purchase what had been stolen (sheets, water buckets, cups, towels, screen curtains etc.) we would send the message that it is OK to steal from the mission because they could always cover the losses. So a list was drawn up of all items missing and which could be purchased locally. The clinic reopened without purchasing any of these. Patients were told a surcharge would be placed on all treatments to go towards the purchase of these items. It was received fav ourably and I heard no complaints. The senior nurses had the right to reduce or waive this charge when necessary and I found they used their discretion well.

Friday evenings two nurses took what had been collected during the week to the market to see which items from our list they could get. The rest of us waited eagerly for their return. The two that went must have been exceptional bargainers – it did not take long to go through the list!

So there it is – a mixture of the horror and the hopeful.

Back to the vehicle – I would not consider purchasing until the threat of further ‘commandeering’ is over. That is certainly not the case at this time.

Again thank you, and thanks to the people of Melbourne Overseas Mission for their support.

Much love