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There’s Judy, an Auckland nurse who’s seconded to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jacqui from Morrinsville who’s doing security for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), me, a Wellingtonian doing communications for New Zealand Red Cross and Glenn from Palmerston North who’s just arrived to work for IFRC in operations.
Even more unusual is that we’ve been able to physically get together for a meal as Judy’s about to head off to training in Geneva, Jacqui’s going to a course in Uganda, Glenn just arrived today and I’m leaving tomorrow.
We gather first at the ICRC compound in Juba for a quick snap.
Glenn comments that the last time he was in South Sudan five years ago, he and three other Kiwis stood on almost exactly the same spot for another group photo. And that got us thinking about the Kiwi footprint in this poor and battle-scarred country.
In the last year more than 10 New Zealand Red Cross nurses have completed missions here with the ICRC. They have worked as hospital managers, ward nurses, and as part of the surgical teams that are rapidly deployed to the field to treat those hurt in the fighting, which first broke out in December 2013.
They have slept on the ground in mosquito domes, dug their own toilets and operated under the most basic conditions, including sterilising instruments over an open fire. They have been through extreme experiences, witnessing deep sorrow, pain and suffering.
I am in awe of them and when I ask Judy why she does it (she’s been doing missions with New Zealand Red Cross for 35 years) she says she has a unique set of skills that enables her to make a difference. And that she knows she is making a difference.
The fragile health system in South Sudan desperately needs people like Judy. When the world’s newest country was formed in 2011 it reportedly had just 248 doctors for 10 million people. But since then many have fled the fighting and instability, leaving an ill-equipped healthcare system and a population dying of preventable diseases like malaria and cholera.
Earlier, while we are visiting three of Judy’s patients at Juba Teaching Hospital she points out a small stone building in the middle of a courtyard. She reels off a long list of New Zealand nurses who have spent their working days in that building. New Zealand had a large presence in this hospital until ICRC ended its activities here in 2007.
She comments that many of the nurses wouldn’t recognise the hospital now. The operating theatre is currently dismantled and is being refurbished - and this is the biggest hospital in the country. When Judy arrived here to support primary healthcare clinics in conflict areas, she inherited about 20 patients at Juba Teaching Hospital who’d been evacuated from an area that had been badly affected by the fighting. She’s managed to get 17 of them well enough to be discharged and sent home, but three long-term cases remain. They are all complicated cases involving gunshot wounds, amputations, infections and poor mobility.
These three have been in bed, one of them in a corridor, for six months now but hopefully with Judy’s help they can soon start rehabilitation and be fitted for prostheses, starting the long journey back to independence.
There have been many other New Zealand nurses who have served in South Sudan and other crisis spots around the world in the 75-year history of the New Zealand Red Cross aid workers programme. Having seen their work first hand, I would like to take this opportunity to say how much I respect and admire them, and to thank them – and those of you who donate so they can do the work they do.
Our aid worker programme is partly supported by funding from New Zealand Aid Programme through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.