Leeds aid worker reveals the challenges healthcare in the midst of a war

Chris McAleer, who lives in Leeds, while working for MSF in Yemen
Chris McAleer, who lives in Leeds, while working for MSF in Yemen
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Chris McAleer, who lives in Leeds, works for humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF).

HIS career takes him thousands of miles from his Horsforth home to provide desperately-needed medical care to people around the world. Chris works in logistics for MSF, carrying out crucial tasks such as ensuring there are enough medical supplies. The 26-year-old’s previous missions have taken him to places such as Iraq, but Yemen is his favourite country. He says the people are “incredibly friendly” and colleagues there are dedicated to helping others, despite the constant dangers they face.

Here he describes the challenges faced on his latest mission, to Taiz – Yemen’s third-largest city, on the frontline of the war.

“Taiz has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the recent conflict.

“There are airstrikes going on, and constant indiscriminate shellfire. The shelling often hits civilian areas and people’s homes, as well as hospitals. There are a lot of snipers, and many areas have been landmined. There isn’t just one risk – there are many.

“I was based in MSF’s mother and child hospital in Al Houban. My job as a logistician was to make sure that everything was running smoothly, and that the medics could do their work as well as possible. While I was there, there were a number of mass casualty events, so I also had to set up a temporary morgue and put people in body bags.

“One of the worst moments was in November, when there was a big increase in fighting within the city.

“At 7.30pm, we were upstairs in our living quarters above the hospital, when we heard reports that a blast had hit a busy market nearby that was crowded with evening shoppers.

“As soon as we were sure it had stopped, we sent ambulances to the location and alerted both our trauma centre and our mother and child hospital to receive ‘hot cases’.

“That evening we had around 30 casualties, both wounded and dead. We organised triage according to the severity of their injuries, and trying to give dignity to those who had been killed.

“It was at this point that we learned that one of our staff – a watchman in our trauma centre – had been killed. That really hit home. It was very tough for the staff to get through that, seeing one of their own colleagues brought in dead.

“In the middle of a conflict, people’s day-to-day medical needs can often be overlooked. We are mostly looking after women and children, but we also provide support for all those injured in the war.

“Because the health system in Taiz has slowly collapsed, a lot of people have nowhere else to go for medical care.

“As hospital staff you always have to act normal but, in the back of your mind, you’re always scared. You don’t know if someone will arrive at the hospital with a weapon, you don’t know if you’ll get hit by a shell or an accidental airstrike. You’re there with the Yemeni staff and the local people, sharing that risk with them.

“For me that was one of the most powerful things – to be able to say, ‘Whatever the situation is like, we are here with you guys and we’re not going anywhere’.”

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