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UN Volunteers from Liberia Assist in Côte d'Ivoire

UN Volunteer Florence Najula Ojwang (left) with ONUCI UNV PO Jacques Mouaya (middle) and Dr Mahesh Babu Pullukollu (right). (Photo: UNV/2011)UN Volunteer Florence Najula Ojwang (left) with ONUCI UNV PO Jacques Mouaya (middle) and Dr Mahesh Babu Pullukollu (right). (Photo: UNV/2011)
12 August 2011

Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire: At the end of March 2011 in Côte d’Ivoire, Alessane Outtara’s forces advanced to the capital, Abidjan. Laurent Gbagbo remained in the presidential palace and refused to give up power, and citizens fled to find safety in neighbouring Liberia, Ghana and Guinea.
 
At the same time, two UN Volunteers who had been stationed in Liberia came to help the people of Côte d’Ivoire. Dr. Mahesh Babu Pullukollu and nurse Florence Najula Ojwang had never been in a situation like this before.

Mahesh says, “After I received the call from Dr. Desta Teferi, Chief Medical Officer, United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) on 1st April, I was excited. I have wanted to experience something like this since I was a child. Now the opportunity had come as a UNV medical doctor, and I was needed. I could not refuse the chance to save lives.”

Florence was also ready to assist. She says, “It was scary, but I accepted the challenge because it was something I had never done before, and I wanted that experience.” 

Mahesh and Florence were airlifted to Abidjan where the medical team at the United Nations Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI) had requested medical supplies that were in short supply: they were critical in serving the wounded. Mahesh gathered the necessary supplies from the UNMIL Medical Section and the UNMIL Jordanian medical team (JORMED).

Having left Monrovia, they boarded the flight to Côte d'Ivoire with few clothes and a little food and money. “Just the two of us were on the flight,” says Florence. They arrived in Abidjan at an airport full of French military personnel and only one movement control (MOVCON) staff to greet them. Mahesh says, “French military tankers were parked all over the airport. I was not really scared, but it made me realize how serious the situation was.”

When they reached the clinic, it was in a state of organized chaos. “Blood was all over the place. The floors, the beds, the furniture, and the stretchers—everywhere,” recounts Florence. “Patients took up almost every available space in the building, including the floors.” They went straight to work. Florence adds, “When we got there and saw the reality of the situation, we just jumped right in to try to save as many lives as possible.” Florence’s first patient had a bullet wound through the thigh and had to be taken to the operating room where Mahesh assisted. The patient lived.

Mahesh assisted in four operations on that first day. He completed the last one during the early hours of the morning. He admitted that though he was tired from the journey to Côte d'Ivoire, lending support to the medical team was more important. He says, “The medical staff was exhausted and extremely grateful for the extra hands.”
 
The first few days there were difficult. “The sounds of bombs and gunshots did not help” says Florence. Mahesh adds, “I was fairly calm, though at first I slept in fits and starts due to the bombing that shook the building.” Food proved to be a major challenge. “I was really hungry, the medical staff was hungry, and the patients were hungry, but we kept on working. Imagine: one bowl of rice and one bowl of soup shared among 15 to 20 people. But we made the best of it. When we came together for lunch we enjoyed each other’s company despite the conditions,” says Mahesh. Over the next two weeks of their stay, the situation gradually improved, and they were able to access more food as the conflict started to lessen with the arrest of Laurent Gbagbo.

Mahesh and Florence returned to their duty station at UNMIL on 25th April 2011. “This experience has made me very confident in my chosen profession and in my skills as a nurse. It has shown me that I can use the limited resources at my disposal to save lives anywhere in the world.” says Florence. Mahesh adds, “This situation showed that such a crisis can arise anywhere, even at UNMIL, so we should all be prepared for the worst. I was able to give my best as a doctor in extraordinary circumstances and helped save a lot of lives”.

UNV is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)