Comoros: ICRC surgical team on the spot during recent fighting

21-04-2008 Interview

As tensions built up in the Indian Ocean nation in March, the ICRC dispatched a surgical team to Anjouan island, to help in case local hospitals became overwhelmed with casualties; interview.


  ©ICRC/P. Yazdi    
  ICRC regional delegation office in Nairobi. Surgical team that was sent to Comores 19-31 March 2008.    

On 25 March 2008, troops of the Union of Comoros landed on the island of Anjouan. With the backing of the African Union and the support of Sudanese and Tanzanian forces, they regained control over the island after all negotiations to end the crisis peacefully had faile d. The situation in the small Indian Ocean nation, made up of Anjouan, Moheli and Grande Comore, had deteriorated last year, when the results of elections in Anjouan were contested by the federal authorities. 

An ICRC surgical team was already in the Comoros three days before the offensive started, prepared to face any emergency. Swiss surgeon Jean-Marc Fiala, German anaesthetist Andrea Reis and Japanese nurse Miwa Hanai lived through days of tension as fighting took place near their hotel. On their return to Nairobi, they told about their mission.

 What was the purpose of your mission?  

 Jean-Marc Fiala: ICRC sent us to give support to the Comoros Red Crescent Society and to help Hombo hospital in Anjouan in case there were a lot of wounded. As we wanted to be prepared to operate in other hospitals as well, we took essential material for surgery with us, such as an amputation set and anaesthetic drugs. Additional surgical material had been sent previously. We arrived just on time and caught the last plane from Grande Comore to Anjouan on 22 March.

 What was the first thing you did upon arrival?  

 Jean-Marc Fiala : We went directly to the hospital to introduce ourselves and to assess the needs. The staff already expected us and we established an excellent contact right from the beginning. Doctors and nurses told us our help would be highly appreciated if the hospital was overwhelmed with casualties. They also estimated that they could handle a moderately difficult situation by themselves.

 Andrea Reis: The same day we also visited the Red Crescent. They had set up several first aid points with the support of the ICRC regional delegation in Pretoria. Our Red Crescent partners mentioned how pleased they were with the dressing kits (bandages, disinfectants, sterile gloves etc.) they had received from the ICRC.

 Where were you when the fighting started?  

 Jean-Marc Fiala: We had settled in a hotel and were ready to be called any time. But the fighting that started on the 25th at dawn prevented us from moving and we had to take shelter all day. Even though I had worked in several conflict zones before, such as Afghanistan, I found this to be quite a frightening situation.

 Miwa Hanai: This was my first mission with the ICRC, in spite of the tension I still feel it was a very good experience to see under which kind of circumstances ICRC teams have to function.

 Were you able to go to the hospital the following day?  

 Jean-Marc: Yes, we went directly in the morning. There were few people on the streets, all the stores were closed. At the hospital, we found out that, fortunately, there were few casualties. By the end of the fighting the following day, two people had died and 20 had been treated for injuries such as gunshot wounds. The hospital staff had coped very well with the situation.

 Andrea: The Red Crescent first aid posts were also all functional. We went to a post in the most affected area (Ouani) and were very impressed by the commitment of the members and volunteers. They had treated light injuries on the spot and transfe rred severe cases to the hospital.

 Overall, how did you feel about this mission?  

 Andrea:  We are very happy that the number of casualties was low. It could have been much worse and we were ready to step in. But the doctors and nurses in Hombo hospital did an excellent job. For us it was difficult to wait in the middle of the fighting without being able to work; caring for the wounded keeps your mind off the dangers around you!

 Interview by Nicole Engelbrecht and Yolanda Jaquemet, ICRC Nairobi