The most dangerous places in the world

Published 10:00 pm Monday, October 24, 2016

Voitek and Lisabeth are pictured in front of the Sheraton in Yemen showing the barbed wire around the hotel compound to hopefully keep it safe.

Voitek and Lisabeth are pictured in front of the Sheraton in Yemen showing the barbed wire around the hotel compound to hopefully keep it safe.

My column this week is going far and wide to some of the most dangerous places in the world. I recently visited with my step-daughter, Lisabeth List, and her partner, Voitek Asztabski. Lisabeth and Voitek have worked for many years with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and more recently, with the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) in Yemen, Jordan and Cairo. I think you will find our conversation interesting and informative.

Lisabeth became interested in helping people in remote areas of the world while a high school junior in Dallas. After visiting a clinic during a mission trip to South America, she decided to be a nurse to gain the skills to help people, and to travel to isolated places, often not affected by the modern world.

In 1996 she saw a TV program on Doctors Without Borders. She had completed a year in a clinic in Zimbabwe, followed by a trip down the Amazon with missionaries visiting rural bush hospitals.

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“When I learned about MSF, I knew that was what I had been looking for,” she remembers. “I applied and was accepted. My first assignment was in Somalia to establish a TB program. Then it was Sudan during the civil war to build a hospital in the desert. However, the hospital was never built. It was too dangerous and we had to evacuate to the bush three times.”

Voitek was a civil engineer in Poland. When Poland opened its borders, breaking away from Communist domination, he obtained a passport and traveled to Austria, his first western country. The contrast of life in a free country was overwhelming and he organized a trip around Europe.

Still in his 20s in 1992, he came to the United States. “I wanted to get here before Poland could change back to a Communist system,” he smiles.

Voitek lived in Miami, reconstructing houses in Homestead after Hurricane Andrew, doing graphic arts for Gloria Estefan Corporation, and eventually ending up in Chapel Hill, N.C. where he managed a Bob Evans restaurant.

He explains, “I had a Moroccan doctor friend who couldn’t work in the U.S. without getting another degree. So he went to work for MSF in Kenya. I was attracted to this and learned that they also accepted non-medical personnel. I applied and was accepted to do logistics for the different operations.

They met in 2005 when Lisabeth was teaching a management course in Amsterdam and Voitek was attending the class. Pakistan experienced a devastating earthquake.

Two days later they both were sent to help. Since that time, they have worked together on projects whenever possible. The list of countries is long, stretching from Somalia, Sudan, Kosovo, East Timor, Darfur, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Haiti, India, Uganda, Philippines, Liberia, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Ukraine, Papua New Guinea, Ethiopia, Haiti, Mali, Ivory Coast, Turkey, Syria, and the Mediterranean Sea, just to name a few!

I ask about their most difficult assignment. They both remember Sri Lanka.

Lisabeth tells me, “It started out as a quiet, low level assignment. We wanted to avoid a big media event. The government and the Tamil Tigers had been in civil war for 25 years and it wasn’t expected to change. Suddenly the government decided it was time to end it. The population was pushed to the coast with no escape. People were being shot from both sides. We heard stories of atrocities. Old people would risk their lives trudging through swamps to escape, but when they reached us they were so exhausted they would die. We had a 400-bed hospital but we were treating 1,000 to 2,000 victims. The floors were lined with people. Once they had surgery, we couldn’t locate them again to check on their condition. There was no one to help.”

She remembers a 16-year-old boy with no arms. “It was horrific. There was no one to help him eat or go to the bathroom. Eventually we had some Red Cross volunteers to take blood pressures and change dressings. Families were taken to camps and couldn’t leave. They didn’t know what had happened to other family members. People were traumatized.”

Voitek describes, “We hadn’t expected this situation. It all happened suddenly and we had to react quickly. I was the project coordinator and Lisabeth was the medical coordinator. We only had a staff of seven. There were 14 different camps. I negotiated access to the camps to get supplies in, clothes, blankets. We had to get food and cook meals to avoid a nutritional crisis.”

The war was a result of the Tigers wanting their own country. They pioneered suicide bombers as a tactic in war. They have been one of the most organized, effective and brutal terrorist groups in the world.

Voitek continues, “They would come to a home and take a child to fight. Then come back and get a second child. One of the suicide bombers killed Rajiv Gandhi, Prime Minister of India in 1991.” 

He reflects, “It’s easier to deal with a natural disaster than a man-made one. You feel like it could have been avoided.”

He explains the philosophy necessary to work in conditions of this nature. “We are not political people. We are neutral, impartial. Of course we have emotional bias but we have to separate our private feelings from what we are dealing with. People are suffering.”

I’m reminded of a quote from a book that I read recently by Fredrik Bachman. “I’m a doctor, for God’s sake, and ever since I became one I’ve not allowed myself the luxury of choosing whose life I should be saving.”

I think this sums up the beliefs of Doctors Without Borders and the devoted people who are part of the organization.

Hopefully you have found this recounting interesting. My next column on Nov. 8 will describe the Ebola mission, plus provide their answers to my question, “Is there one experience or person, when thinking back over the years, that tells you it’s all been worth it?”