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Chad: Cuban doctors work around the clock to save the war wounded

22-04-2006 Feature

During the recent outbreak of fighting the Cuban authorities offered the ICRC the services of its medical staff based in Chad. They immediately stepped up to the challenge, performing emergency surgery and saving life and limb. ICRC delegate, Anahita Kar reports.


    On Thursday April 13, nine Cuban doctors huddled inside one of the two houses they occupy in N'Djamena waiting for the sound of artillery and gunfire to subside. The sounds of battle had started around six o'clock that morning and went on that day until almost midday. 
In the afternoon, they received a surprise visit from two ICRC delegates in Chad, a Spanish-speaking orthopaedist, Marcelino Calvo, who was accompanied by the deputy head of delegati on, Nikolai Panke. The ICRC visitors explained that the Cuban Mission in Geneva had offered the medical expertise of its Cuban doctors based in Chad for as long as they were needed.
The short-lived but fierce fighting between the national army and the rebel forces in and around the city limits of the Chadian capital, N'Djamena, had left hundreds wounded and dead. Chadian Red Cross volunteers delivered the wounded to hospital and removed the dead bodies from the streets. The military hospital of N'Djamena was overwhelmed by the influx of wounded combatants who needed immediate life-saving intervention.
So the Cuban doctors, six men and three women, began a four day non-stop struggle to save lives. They received over 500 cases, of which 171 required immediate emergency interventions under the most difficult conditions. 
The ICRC supported the hospital with a medical delegate and materials to accommodate the influx of war-wounded, including tents, blankets and mattresses, surgical and emergency kits.
Dr. Ricardo Pereira is one of the surgeons and has been working in underdeveloped countries since 1994. When asked the biggest challenge faced during these days in Chad he said it was not the lack of sleep, or rest or even breaks to eat, but the lack of personnel and adequate infrastructure.
" We had to carry the patients from the ground onto the operating table ourselves. The pharmacy was closed until the ICRC intervened and obtained access to crucial medicines, such as antibiotics, oxygen and anaesthetics. "  
Dr. César Hechavarria, is the anaesthesiologist and team leader. He has been working as a " flying " doctor since 1989, when his first assignment took him to Angola. He was based in the capital Luanda, during the civil war, where only the worst cases were transferred. During the last few days however, he says he faced the greatest me dical challenge of his life due to the sheer volume of numbers. 
One particular case stood out for both doctors -- a young teenager who had been wounded in the chest and arm. He was a shepherd until a few weeks ago when he was recruited to fight against the Government.
" He made me think of my own two children who are about the same age and how they are safe and have all the facilities in Cuba that allow them free health care and education. Here so many young people are enlisted without knowing what they are fighting for " , said Dr. Pereira.
The doctors are present in Chad in the context of a governmental programme. They are usually assigned to a country for two to three years, receiving a month's holiday at the end of each year to visit their families back home.
When asked what motivates them to work in such difficult conditions and to endure these long periods of separation from their families, one replies.
" We are here to take care of people regardless of their race, religion or political affiliation. We can work with any organization, such as the Red Cross, where there is a need and we hope to continue to do so. "