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Yemen: Part 1 - “This isn’t what you’ve heard about, is it”

10 Jul 2017

Entering their third year of conflict, the people of Yemen face ongoing suffering. Infrastructure has been indiscriminately destroyed, and food, water, healthcare and security are scarce commodities in many areas. But for some Yemenis it’s important to contest this singular view, as anaesthetist Richard Lees discovered when he arrived in Khamir on his first placement with Médecins Sans Frontières. 

“This isn’t what you’ve heard about, is it?” It’s a challenging question for someone who has never visited a country before—to boot, for someone who is on their first field placement with Médecins Sans Frontières. For Richard Lees, the answer was ‘yes’—but also ‘no’. “A number of people asked me this question, and it’s true. The Yemen that you hear about is not necessarily the Yemen that you see. Where I was, you wouldn’t know that it was war-torn. Everyone was so friendly. I never felt threatened.” That said, Yemen is known for being heavily armed. According to the Small Arms Survey, civilians carry guns at a per-capita level only second to the United States. “None of the shootings we saw were conflict-related in the context of the current war. They involved people having an inter-tribal argument or an argument, or being incidentally shot. The worst was when a child was shot by another with an AK 47. We also saw a 16-year-old who took his AK47 to school and got shot by his own gun.”

"The worst was when a child was shot by another"

“The operating theatre worked really well. Both the local surgeons that I worked with were exceptional, and an absolute pleasure to work with.” In some ways, Richard felt that the level of care was higher than modern hospitals at home. “Almost because the ability to investigate is lower—for example, there are no CT scans—so a patient that has been shot in the stomach goes from the emergency department to the operating theatre almost immediately, and blood too is available almost immediately. In this way the patient has their definitive treatment very quickly. I think it’s because the medical staff see a lot of gunshot victims and know what to do. In Australia we just haven’t have had the regular exposure to the work that I saw done by the local surgeons.”

But while working overseas where resources are limited was not new for Richard, working as part of a bigger organisation was. “Where I’ve typically worked overseas before it has been somewhat chaotic with very little equipment—very little ‘stuff’. With Médecins Sans Frontières the equipment is still basic, but it is enough to enable safe practices. Médecins Sans Frontières has standards, which are adhered to, so there’s hygiene and minimal levels of care. It was reassuring that I could use some equipment and it would be replaced. It was nice to know there was a big organisation behind me and the project, to make sure things are ongoing.”