Staff members present donations to displaced people in Kerawa, Far North region, Cameroon, Aug. 7, 2023. (Photo by Kepseu/Xinhua)
A once-damaged rural health center in Cameroon was reconstructed with support from the ICRC, helping the locals.
YAOUNDE, Sept. 12 (Xinhua) -- Gunshots and battle shouts interrupted the chill of the wind and the silence in the depth of night in Ouzal, a remote locality in Cameroon's Far North region.
It was February 2020 and gunmen had just invaded the village which also hosts internally displaced persons.
Terrified, Gilbert Teguele Gazawa and his family made a dash for the mountain for safety. Other villagers followed.
When they returned after the raid, they found that the gunmen had looted and then set fire to several homes and a health center. They burned three people alive and abducted six children between three years to five years of age.
"They (villagers) were traumatized. They did not know what to do," said 40-year-old Gazawa, traditional leader of Mandoussa locality where Ouzal is located.
"They burnt everything and stole all the material we had in stock (in the health center). Two of those who were kidnapped were children of the workers of the hospital. There is no trace of those children till today," added Samuel Baldena, chief of the Integrated Health Center of Ouzal, which was attacked. It was the third attack on the health center in less than three years.
This photo taken on Aug. 4, 2023 shows a new building housing maternity wards of a health center in Ouzal, Far North region, Cameroon. (Photo by Kepseu/Xinhua)
Gazawa said that after the incursion, there was a severe lack of essential medical equipment, supplies, and staff in the health center that serves more than 11,000 people in six villages.
With support from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), reconstruction of the health center began in 2021. Now a refurbished and reequipped health facility stands in place of the rubble.
The health center is now structurally sound, much of the equipment and medical supplies reinstated and medications and consultations are provided free of charge.
"There is an increase in patient attendance at the health center following ICRC assistance," said Lael Njomou Ndeumen, ICRC health field officer.
"We receive 1,100, 1,200 and sometimes 2,000 or 3,000 patients per month especially in August and September when malaria threatens the population," said Baldena. "At first only three of us were working here, but ICRC recruited several personnel. There are 15 of us working here now."
A serious problem of traditional midwifery and malnutrition among children and pregnant women emanated even after the hospital was reconstructed.
"Many children used to die at birth (due to poor delivery)," said 46-year-old Marie Mbortaye, a mother of 12 who once experienced the pains of miscarriage.
She is among several women trained by ICRC to be traditional birth attendants. When your correspondent arrived at the Integrated Health Center of Ouzal, she was helping a pregnant lady in her 30s to deliver her baby. "We advise women to come to the hospital for delivery and sometimes help them to give birth. Things have changed (positively) since the program began in the hospital," Mbortaye said.
Patients wait for consultation at a health center in Ouzal, Far North region, Cameroon, Aug. 4, 2023. (Photo by Kepseu/Xinhua)
To solve the malnutrition problem, facilitators trained by ICRC regularly sensitize villagers on the prevention methods. Therapeutic feeding programs and rich food distributions to prevent further malnourishment have allowed malnutrition rates to drop sharply said, Stella Kameni, a nutritionist with ICRC.
"The program has reduced mortality rates. Children get sick less and less. Pregnant women who are treated give birth less and less to children with low birth defects … and give birth to children who are in good health," Kameni said.
Despite the legal protections afforded to medical units under international humanitarian law, attacks on health structures are a recurring problem in Cameroon's Far North region where years of fighting between government forces and armed groups have left a devastating toll on civilians, said Ndeumen, the ICRC health field officer.
Since 2014, roughly 10 health facilities have been attacked in the region, according to security reports.
"We are grateful for the reconstruction of the health center, but only insecurity threatens us now. People are being displaced, even medical workers, we work from 7:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and we have to leave the village to spend the night in the mountain because we are afraid," said Baldena, the chief of the Integrated Health Center of Ouzal. ■