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Ivory Coast: Life and loss in Duékoué camp

Tears are rolling down Solange’s cheeks. The 38-year-old woman has just given birth to her tenth baby. But she has also just learned that her brother, who was shot a couple of days ago, has now been found dead. I can’t come close to imagining how she must feel.

The contrast of these two events – the loss of a cherished brother and the birth of a newborn child in the space of a couple of minutes – is striking. Solange is at the maternity clinic that’s been set up in the grounds of the largest displacement camp in Côte d’Ivoire, in the western town of Duékoué. About 27,000 people have sought refuge here after fleeing heavy fighting three weeks ago. Their villages have been under attack, their relatives killed, their shops looted, their houses burned down, and their crops destroyed.

“We were inside the house when we heard gunshots,” says Solange. “Men with weapons told us they cannot kill women but forced us to leave with our children. Here in the camp life is difficult. I’m here with all my children. We stay outside, there is no roof, no place to sleep. When I was pregnant, I had to struggle for food and was unable to queue for the distribution.” Save the Children teams are planning to distribute nutritious food to pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers in Duekoué to help give them the strength they need to deliver and breastfeed their newborns.

Last month 100 babies were born in this classroom we’re sitting in, now turned into a makeshift maternity clinic. A simple plastic curtain hangs from the ceiling to separate the delivery room from the area where women rest on the floor with their newborn babies after delivery. Still, Solange is luckier than others. Yesterday another woman lost her two babies shortly after giving birth. In the camp, there is only one midwife or traditional birth attendant per 9,000 people – that’s four times fewer midwives than recommended in the minimum international standards. Displaced pregnant women remain too scared to go to the city hospital that has recently re-opened its doors.

“Women here have no other option but to deliver on the floor. It hurts me to see this,” a local midwife called Amy tells me, as she shows us the very basic medical equipment she uses during the delivery process. “Equipment is missing. We just have a couple of pairs of scissors. We cannot tie the umbilical cord as there is no thread. Bleach and alcohol are also missing,” she says. She is clearly struggling to meet the needs of her patients. I can’t help but admire these local health workers, like Amy, for coming to work everyday, staying day and night, despite the very challenging environment. Imagine what nurses and midwives could do, how many lives they could save, if they had the equipment they need. I’m proud that Save the Children is supporting the clinic with medical supplies to help improve safe delivery of newborns. I can see for myself just how badly this is needed.

“Midwives prescribed medicines for me, but they didn’t provide any,” says Solange, with her maternity health record in her hands. “Pharmacies are closed. And if they weren’t, I don’t have money to buy any medicine. I still have a prescription in my hand.”  I think of our plane that is due to land in a few days, carrying five tonnes of essential medicines and medical equipment. I’m impatient and want it to get here now, but at the same time am immensely thankful that it is on its way. In less than a week, medicines will be made available to mothers and newborn babies like Solange and her baby, who are just two among the many  at risk in Duékoué’s maternity clinic and the many other health centres affected by the conflict. I’m impressed by the commitment of our staff who have managed to pull together and distribute 200 newborn kits to mums like Solange who recently gave birth. Each kit includes soap, towel, baby powder, a bedsheet, nappies and baby clothes to ensure babies are clean and healthy.

At the camp in Duékoué, Solange is lying down exhausted at her baby son’s side. The difficult and risky delivery process has left her drained. I have so many questions popping up in my mind. What are your first impressions? How did the delivery process go? What are your fears? Your hopes? What future do you want for your baby?  I don’t dare to ask Solange any of these. It is clearly not the right moment. The questions can wait. I am about to leave and let Solange enjoy this very intimate moment with her son when she suddenly turns her head and stares at me. She doesn’t need to say a word – her look tells me clearly she wants me to stay for a while. I put my camera and my notepad down and sit on the mat at Solange’s side, ready to give her whatever company and support I can in the absence of her family.

About 15 newborn babies and mums are surrounding us. Many of them have witnessed killings and lootings. I can feel their pain. I can also feel their relief. While they have lost loved ones during the conflict, they have also now given birth to cherished children. Solange’s eyes are now closing. She is at peace. Her baby is too. So am I.

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