An International Woman

Entry by: percypop

11th March 2016

The sun set as they drove into Id al Sur. Amir advised they should travel in the late afternoon to reduce sniper fire. He had driven this route many times before.
"The AK47 can't touch you at more than 400 yards," he was trying to be helpful, "and they won't use the rifles unless the light is good."

Jackie smiled ruefully. This was poor comfort for her first lead assignment in Syria. When she volunteered, they said Medecin sans Frontiers had the protection of the United Nations; nobody mentioned sniper fire.

She jumped down, her limbs aching after the drive across bomb damaged roads. Each supply lorry had one driver and two NGO technicians, a mixed bunch made up of Med sans Fr members and a few Red Crescent nurses. She stretched to ease the muscles cramped by four hours on a hard narrow bench. The others gathered round and waited for her instructions.

"Let's get the medic stuff off first," she said "and we'll sort out accommodation later."

Her khaki shirt stuck to her back and her jeans were stiff and uncomfortable.

"I'll never wear jeans again!" she vowed as she helped Santos her Spanish medic to hand down the bulky hessian sacks containing bandages and other consumables. He worked silently from the back of the first lorry, sweat forming sheen on his broad forehead as he tossed sack after sack down to her.

The Syrian drivers stood idly smoking beside their vehicles.
"Too bloody much for them to muck in, I suppose,"

she thought bitterly, but she didn’t want to start a war of words on her first day at the base.

They managed to shift the stuff into a big army tent with the sign "MsF" written upon it. Inside, the humidity was unbearable and she wondered how it would be possible to keep the antibiotics and drugs stable in such a place.

Damian, her surgeon, gave out a sigh:

"Jesu! Vickie, how the hell can we work like this?" His Aussie accent made it sound plaintive rather than angry.
"We can't. I'll collar the UN senior officer and get us moved. Meanwhile let's put our own gear with the supplies and we can sort it out later."

Too dispirited to resist, the six lugged their kit into the furnace heat of the supply tent.

A jeep arrived in a cloud of dust and a man in a shemag head dress jumped out. He was tall and thin, dressed in khaki. It was almost impossible to make out his features but a dark skinned face with a large nose jutted out from the scarf. His eyes were black and piercing. He looked round and went up to Damian, the largest and palest man in the group.
"Welcome Sir! We have been looking forward to your arrival! There is much to do, but little time I'm afraid"

Jackie stepped out and confronted the man.
"I'm Jackie Stewart, I am leading the team. May I know who you represent?"

The man took a step back and examined her keenly. It was easy to see he was taken aback by her introduction.

"Here we go again" thought Jackie "more stupid remarks coming. Why don't they read their bloody messages?"

"Didn't Geneva tell you who led this team?" she asked.
He paused before replying. She could almost hear the cogs whirring in his head as he adjusted to this new situation.
"I must have been misinformed by Headquarters."

"No you bloody weren't just didn't bother to read it properly." She thought.
But she smiled as if she believed him and indicated that they wanted to take up their quarters as soon as possible. The team grabbed their luggage and followed the tall man to a tin hut some two hundred yards down a narrow row of brown tents and huts painted with white paint marking U N on the roofs.

The man's name was Ali Mansoor and he was the leader of the Kurdish Defence League holding this district against the Syrian Army. He spoke English, and some French. It surprised Marie, one of Jackie's most valued assistants who had done two tours in Syria already. The two spoke for a few minutes in French and he used a great deal of gestures as if something of great importance was being said.
Jackie sensed this and turned to Marie with a questioning look.

Marie was visibly affected; she looked at her with wide eyes;
"He says an attack is expected any time and we should not be here!"

Jackie replied "We would never have been sent here if that was the case."

Jackie experience with Med s F was a long one, although she never led a team before.
"Things have changed in the last twenty four hours, Madame" Mansoor said "and we have no time now to organize your return to Aleppo. We shall need you here."
"Where is the UN representative?" she asked
"I must speak with him, now, at once."

Mansoor shrugged as if that would end the conversation.
"Well?" Jackie said "where will I find him?"

"He left this morning, on his way to Aleppo, but there's a Sergeant and a troop behind to take care of your team."

She struggled to conceal her alarm. It seemed as if her mission was about to be submerged in the fighting. All her training had been on the basis that Med kept out of the war area and gave treatment to all parties.
"Please take me to the UN Patrol"

He turned and left the hut without looking behind him. She wished she had time to make herself presentable, she pulled her light brown hair and pinned it back. it was the best she could do.
The Kurdish fighter strode into the dusk and she hurried to catch up. He lifted the flap of a tent and pointed to a man sitting at a table cleaning a gun.
"There is Sergeant Hansen, I will leave you now"

Then he was gone.

Jackie ducked inside and Hansen rose from the table.
His blue eyes were wide with astonishment and he pulled a cigarette from his lip and crushed it under his boot.
"What in God's name are you doing here? Don't you know an attack is imminent? Who sent you?"

Jackie said “We left Homs this afternoon on specific instructions to set up a base here. We would never have come if this attack had been notified."

Hansen snorted and said "Do you think Assad tells us his plans?"

But seeing the effect of this, he smiled and tried to soften his remark.
"I'll do what I can to get you out of here at once, but it may not be easy."

His English had a strong Danish accent. He spoke into a field telephone and a minute later an African soldier in UN battledress appeared at the entrance.
"Can we get these MED people out of here?"

As if an answer to the query, a burst of sharp gunfire broke out nearby. Vickie recognized the staccato sound of AK47s and knew her chance of escape had gone.

"Take me to a casualty centre." she said. "Where is it?"

Hansen nodded and ducked out of the tent, she followed.
At the end of the row of huts was a larger tent, again with UN painted on the roof. Inside were twelve beds, empty and covered in thin mattresses.
“Please tell my crew to come here and bring supplies."
This to the African soldier who followed her.
She began to divide the space into two separate areas, pulling three beds to one side and using some thin blankets, lying in a corner, to improvise a screen.
Hansen began to help her, but more gunfire, like flashes of lightning, flickered through the canvas covering above them.
"I must go" he said.
She nodded and went on with her work. By the time the team arrived, she had set up a triage section and treatment room. They sorted out the supplies and waited. Gunfire increased and soon the crackle of small arms fire came closer. Damian pulled on a hospital white and looked round for gloves.
"In for a rowdy evening” he said
and grinned at the group as if he was at a barbecue on Sydney Harbour. His eyes were bright with excitement and Jackie reminded herself it was his first encounter with a live firefight.
She smiled with the brightest smile she could fake while her whole body trembled with fear.
Two of the Jordanian Red Crescent nurses shrank into a corner and sat crouched together as if there was some protection there.
Before she could rouse them to action, a man burst through the flap with a body draped across his shoulders.
"Over here" Jackie pointed to the nearest bed and the man obeyed.

The wounded man had taken a bullet through the throat. She did her best to stem the blood but a quick pulse-check showed a fading irregular beat.
Damian leant over the body and shook his head.
"I can't do anything for the poor bugger--we've got no blood and he’s too far gone."

Jackie nodded. She shook her head at the man who brought him in and he shrugged. His uniform was stained and a crust of blood had formed on his shoulder where the body had lain. He said nothing and left.

Santos looked at Jackie, raised his eyebrows and made a faint gesture with his head. She knew what he meant and nodded in return. He lifted the man gently and took him out to the other side of the curtain.
The stream of wounded increased as the night went on and the noise of gunfire and rockets made the canvas quiver. They worked wading in bandages and makeshift dressings until they ran out of supplies and sat exhausted by the side of the men who lay on every surface available;some dead, some dying, some patched up.
The Arab nurses crooned quietly holding their patients in their arms and it seemed to calm the wounded in some way.
Jackie dozed for a few moments and then realized the gunfire had stopped. Only intermittent shots punctuated the silence. Damian went to the flap of the tent and drew back the canvas a little.
“The bastards must have run for it."
A column of half tracks and pick-up trucks filed slowly down the alleyway between the huts. A man in military uniform in the first truck stopped in front of the tent. He wore gold braid on his cap. He saluted.
"Almighty God has sent you!" he said. "when we needed help, you were there. May a thousand blessings come down on you for your brave work."

He explained how that the UN officer had got through to Aleppo and this column had brought re-inforcements.
Jackie could feel tears welling up inside. Whether it was relief after the terror of the gunfire or pity for the poor men she could not save - even she didn't know. She turned away to wipe them away and took a moment to gather her spirits.

Then she asked the officer. "Where are the wounded government troops - we must help them too."
She washed the blood from her arms and hands; pushed back her hair from her eyes; straightened her aching back and went outside.