A Ceasefire to Save Lives
by Margaret Aguirre
"No man is worth his salt who is not ready at all times to risk his body, to risk his well-being, to risk his life, in a great cause." -Theodore Roosevelt
Dr. Sekou Conde has the steely, unflappable mien of a man who has lived and worked in dangerous environments most of his adult life. He is accustomed to seeing suffering, and accustomed to doing everything in his power to stop it. As a public health technical advisor for International Medical Corps he trains health workers in some of the most remote, hardest-hit conflict zones, to deliver relief to their communities.
In January of 2014, he traveled to the Central African Republic (CAR) to provide technical assistance to International Medical Corps teams operating in a country embroiled in a worsening civil war. That previous March, rebel forces had seized CAR’s capital of Bangui, forcing 700,000 people throughout the country to flee their homes. In all, more than 4 million people – almost half of them children – were directly affected by the crisis. International Medical Corps, which has worked in CAR since 2007, scaled up its operations as the violence escalated and spread throughout the country.
Dr. Sekou arrived in CAR to discover that there was an outbreak of measles in the region around Bria in the central part of the country. Already, there were 123 cases – an epidemic was in progress. Bria was one of the towns in the grip of the rebels and delivering humanitarian assistance, including vaccinations for children, had become near-impossible for the International Medical Corps health workers and community mobilizers working there.
Dr. Sekou knew what had to be done. He knew he would have to meet with the commander of the rebels, try to negotiate for their soldiers to put down their weapons, and allow medical teams to access the area and organize a vaccination campaign. Many of Dr. Sekou’s colleagues told him it was too dangerous and counseled against it. “Some were scared,” he recalls. “Some didn’t want anyone to think that in meeting with the commander we were associating with rebels. But as humanitarians we know that we don’t associate with rebels and that we have to do whatever is necessary to help people in need.”
Two weeks later, he and colleagues from the World Health Organization traveled to the home of the rebel commander. “We met his wife and children. He was quite friendly. He realized these vaccination activities were for his own community. He said ‘we will make sure it is safe’. When we got the authorization from the commander we immediately mobilized our volunteers and health workers.”
Local authorities reached out to inform the community, mobilizers issued announcements in public areas and broadcast messages on the radio. One week after Dr. Sekou’s meeting, the vaccination campaign began. Within five days, International Medical Corps had vaccinated 13,247 children, ages 6 months to 15 years, at 9 sites. During that same campaign, a mass nutrition screening was also conducted, with 5,841 children checked for malnutrition.
Dr. Sekou, a father of four, reflects on that achievement of saving lives and training even in the most difficult, challenging locations. “I realized a long time ago, when I was working in a municipal hospital, that it wasn’t where I could help people the most. I was just managing consequences. I knew I could have a much bigger impact in places like CAR. And the training is so important. It improves the quality of our services. These people are in the community and are in charge of their own health consequences. We have to be there to help these people.”