Interview with Ms. Karliene Kleijer who just came back from Liben, southern Ethiopia

September 9, 2011


Karliene who was until recently MSF emergency field coordinator in Liben, southern Ethiopia.

Interview with Ms. Karliene Kleijer who just came back from Liben, southern Ethiopia

1) How was it to set up operations in southern Ethiopia (following the need for increased medical care after Somalis started fleeing massively to Ethiopia)?

Humbling, it is very impressive to be confronted with the challenges the Somali population are facing. Talking to the mothers who are coming with their children to our hospitals for malnourished children just makes me realise how rich and easy my life is and has been. They have faced hunger, oppression and conflict for many years, managed to survive, decided in the end to leave Somalia as the situation became life threatening and then have to engage in a dangerous road trip to arrive in a chaotic situation in Ethiopia.

At the same time it is good to be able to setup activities so quickly and see patients improving over time. The nice thing about treating malnourished children is that the ones who survive change very quickly from a very sick and weak child into a laughing & playing child which makes all the hard work worthwhile.

2) What were the conditions like that you and your team worked under?

The climate of the Liben region is harsh: hot temperatures, strong winds, lot of sand & dust and the desert is full of rocky surfaces making it very difficult to set up tents, doing construction or to run health services. At the same time the team could return at the end of the day to our compound in the village where our sleeping tents had some coverage of the wind, while the refugees have to live in their tents in the open desert.

3) What do you currently see as the greatest challenges facing the refugees?

The challenges are enormous. We are still trying to provide the bare minimum for this refugee population, to make them survive. Their health and nutritional status is extremely fragile. The services and living conditions for the refugees are still not optimal: food, water and shelter are not there in adequate amounts, and the hygienic situation is a concern. The UN, the Government of Ethiopia and several ngo’s are working hard to improve this, but there is still a long way to go. At this moment we don’t focus on the refugees’ future or their social wellbeing, but about ensuring they can survive the next weeks.

I met a mother of four children - ranging one to seven year of age - in our temporary clinic in the Hiloweyn refugee camp on the first day that we had started our activities. The oldest of the children was moderately malnourished, the other three kids severely malnourished, and all four had eye infections. The mother told me she had left 70 days ago from Kismayo in Somalia as her last four goats had died and she had no means anymore to feed her children. After 28 days of traveling they arrived in Ethiopia, and it took a number of days to be registered as refugees. Then they had to live and wait in the transit camp near to the border for another six weeks.

She told me that her children had become more malnourished after she arrived in Ethiopia as they did not have enough food in the transit camp. She was happy that they had now finally reached the refugee camp, as hygiene had been very bad in the transit camp. I felt so bad because I felt that as the international community we had failed her: not being able to give her better assistance when they arrived in Ethiopia. At the same time, she was hopeful and smiled and felt her situation had now improved. I just hope we prove her right.

4) What do you currently see as the greatest challenges facing MSF in Liben ?

The biggest challenge for MSF is to ensure that our medical supplies and experienced staff continue to arrive in time. One challenge in this is of course our own pipeline of personnel and medicines. Also there are many rules and regulations set by the government of Ethiopia. That is understandable but it is not always easy to comply and it sometimes takes much time.

5) Other activities?

Our clinics and health centres in Liben are accessible to everybody, refugees and local residents. We try to recruit staff as much as possible from among the local population, but this is not always possible and we get a lot of criticism for bringing in skilled staff from other parts of Ethiopia, or bringing in expats.

Our services and resources are going to the refugees, while the local population are facing drought too. Many live in poverty, so of course they want to share some of the benefits.

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