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Wars not only cause tragedies, they also bring out the best in people. Such is the case in Lokichokio where sacrifices are being made every day by men and women who come from different corners of the globe to help save the lives of the victims of a war few people know of or care about.

Among them is a 43-year-old Thai nurse, Orasa Petkong. In February this year she took leave from her post at the Chu-lalongkorn Hospital in Bangkok to fulfil the Thai Red Cross Society’s only field involvement with the ICRC.

At first sight, the soft-spoken nurse would hardly be labelled adventurous. For her, going to the refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border in the early 1980s to treat war-wounded Khmers was about as adventurous as she got – or so she thought.

Lokichokio is different. Here she is without her Thai colleagues, alone in an unfamiliar environment half a world away, speaking a language with which she has to struggle in order to make herself understood.

For six months she will have to endure harsh living conditions and brave a dozen exotic diseases in a place where progress has made little difference. Yet, this is her second mission to Lokichokio. After a first stint in 1994, she asked the Thai Red Cross to send her back to the ICRC-run field hospital.

Born in Surat Thani province, Orasa began working for the Thai Red Cross Society’s Relief Division soon after her graduation from its nursing college in 1974. She is not the first Thai nurse to volunteer to go to Lokichokio, but the only one to do so twice. “I have skills and know that with my small part I can help save lives,” Orasa says simply. “It’s gratifying to know that I’m doing something worthwhile.”

At Lopiding, as the field hospital is known, Orasa is one of two operating-theatre nurses who help surgeons perform thousands of operations on war victims flown in from different parts of southern Sudan, where Sudanese government forces have been fighting rebels for territorial control for more than a decade.

“This is a war-surgery hospital, and most patients have surgical complications that are rarely seen in Bangkok,” she points out. “Many have gunshot wounds that are badly infected by the time they are brought to the hospital. When gangrene sets in, the dead tissues have to be removed and sometimes the limb has to be amputated.”

Yet many patients refuse to have the part amputated. “They are sent back home, because the doctors can no longer do anything for them,” she says. “They don’t understand that the infection spreads to other parts of the body. Soon after, they die.”

At the hospital Orasa’s day starts around
8 a.m. and, with lunch and dinner breaks, she often works late into the night, depending on the number of patients brought in from the field that day. Alternately, she splits 24-hour on-call duty with the other operating theatre nurse.

She shares a two-room bungalow with a Kenyan nurse at the Lokichokio base camp about four kilometres from the hospital. Her other colleagues come from all over the world, from the far north of Finland to remote south New Zealand.
Orasa’s daily activities revolve around the hospital and the base camp. Social activities are virtually non-existent. “I seldom go out of the ICRC camp because it’s not very safe, especially at night,” she says. “There is nothing much to do here, except talk to each other at meal times.”
Orasa says English continues to be her main drawback, especially when she needs to interact with her fellow workers. Compared with her first mission here in 1994, however, she says her English has greatly improved but is still not enough to make her “new found friends” gain an insightful understanding of her. Because of her professional abilities, however, she has earned the respect of her colleagues.
“War is cruel and the situation in southern Sudan is very sad,” Orasa says. “It’s unfair so many innocent people are paying for somebody else’s war.”

Niphat Taptagaporn
Niphat Taptagaporn is the ICRC’s Media Liaison Officer based in Bangkok.

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