How-tos | LIFELINES

Medecins Sans Frontieres Japan calls for end to deadly attacks on hospitals

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

Here in Japan, hospitals are seen as safe places where medical staff can concentrate on the all-important task of caring for their patients. However, elsewhere in the world, they are increasingly becoming casualties of war.

This was the fate of one hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz almost exactly a year ago. In an attack widely reported around the world and denounced as a violation of international humanitarian law, the Kunduz Trauma Centre was hit by a U.S. airstrike on Oct. 3, resulting in the deaths of 42 patients and staff.

The hospital was a facility run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, also known as Doctors without Borders). The nonprofit humanitarian organization is known worldwide as a provider of impartial medical care to people caught up in armed conflict, epidemics and natural disasters, as well as to those who are excluded from receiving health care.

“The hospital was completely destroyed in a very precise aerial bombardment,” says Jeremie Bodin, general director of MSF Japan. He adds that in addition to the 42 deaths, tens of thousands of people lost their only means of medical care. The U.S. called it “a mistake” and later paid reparations to the wounded and families of the dead.

Tragic as this incident was, it isn’t an isolated case. Bodin notes that MSF has witnessed similar attacks on hospitals in other locations, including South Sudan, Syria and Yemen, and data indicates there were 113 attacks on hospitals worldwide in the first six months of this year alone.

With the aim of raising public awareness of the situation, MSF Japan has launched a campaign, “Byoin o Utsuna — Don’t Attack Hospitals,” as well a petition asking for the people of Japan to support MSF in their advocacy efforts. Bodin spoke to Lifelines about MSF Japan’s activities, including a powerful exhibition showing in Tokyo.

Titled “Medical Care Under Fire”, the bilingual multimedia event mixes photography, videos and live testimony to give visitors a sense of the desperate situations faced by MSF staff on a daily basis. Japanese staff who have worked in war zones will be on hand to give deeper insight into these harrowing situations. The exhibition will be take place at Tokyo Tower from Oct. 1 to 5.

Bodin hopes that visitors to the exhibition can get a sense of what it must be like for those affected, and why hospitals must be protected places in times of war.

“Even war has rules and it’s critical that they are respected,” he stresses.

A French national, Bodin has over 20 years of experience in the international humanitarian and development sector and came to Japan three years ago upon taking over his current role.

“Our office staff in Tokyo is a colorful mix of Japanese and international professionals, with English as the working language,” he says.

MSF started in France in 1971, and now oversees programs in 70 countries, bringing thousands of health professionals and support staff together to help wherever the need is greatest. Japan has been a vital part of MSF since 1992.

To date, over 1,200 Japanese doctors, nurses and logistical staff have lent their support to MSF’s humanitarian activities around the globe. In recent months, Japanese staff have led MSF missions in South Sudan and Libya.

“Thanks to the dedication, skill and professionalism of our Japanese surgeons, gynecologists and midwives, among others, they are sought after to work with MSF missions across the world,” Bodin says.

MSF Japan was also on hand to support those affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, as well as the Kumamoto earthquake in April.

MSF relies heavily on donations to fund its activities, and Bodin acknowledges the help of the Japanese people.

“It’s the generosity of the public here in Japan and their support of what we do — providing medical care to whoever is in need — that is so important. Really, we can’t do anything without them.”

With MSF Japan’s 25th anniversary coming up next year, Bodin and his team are keen to continue to build on the organization’s solid base and further engage with the Japanese public.

“There are many ways in which people can work for or support MSF in Japan, and we want people to know that what they do really makes a difference.”

He points out that Japan’s cutting-edge technology could prove beneficial to MSF in terms of research and development into the latest innovation in technical care.

“We also want to make better connections with Japanese pharmaceutical companies that are producing life-saving drugs. Accessing them to help those people most in need outside of Japan remains difficult,” explains Bodin.

“Medical Care Under Fire” can be seen Oct. 1-5 at the Tokyo Tower Hall in Minato Ward, 10.30 a.m.-9 p.m. Free admission. For more information on the “Byoin o Utsuna — Don’t Attack Hospitals” campaign and petition, see www.msf.or.jp/utsuna. Do you know about a citizens’ group or of any other helpful resources? Your comments and questions: lifelines@japantimes.co.jp