In her two-year stint as a volunteer for Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), Lim Suet Fong has cried only twice.
It all began with a five-day journey across three continents in 2010, when Lim, 39, first arrived at Juba International Airport in South Sudan – a crumbling, single-storey building that looked like a primary school in Singapore.
After a long wait at customs where her luggage was manually searched (no X-ray scanners) and a much longer wait for the driver (there were no taxis or trains or buses), she finally arrived at her bedroom – a kitchen with a wooden bed.
At least she arrived safely. Some of the others were not so lucky. One of her fellow volunteers was robbed at gunpoint right outside their apartment complex on that first day.
The badly-shaken victim flew home the very next morning, having spent less than 24 hours in Sudan. That was the first time Suet Fong broke down.
“That night, I actually cried and wondered how I got myself into this mess,” Suet Fong said.
Despite the fear and shock of day one in Sudan, the Malaysian-born engineer decided to soldier on in her role as an MSF logistician. For the first four months, she worked behind the barbed wire of MSF’s secure compound in Juba. After learning the ropes, she was deployed at the frontline hospitals in Sudan’s rural areas.
“The field missions were much more fun. In the city, you don’t get to see the beneficiaries. In Jibor and Gogrial, we got to interact with the local people,” she said.
Medecins Sans Frontieres is an NGO famous for its fearless doctors. However, those doctors could not survive without the help of logisticians like Suet Fong, who handle the thousand and one things that keep the hospitals running smoothly.
“Yes, we are like bao ka liao (hokkien for ‘cover everything’) for MSF. We handle logistics and construction, but this includes everything from maintaining the ambulance fleet to changing toilet paper,” Suet Fong said with a laugh.
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When she said everything, she meant it. Sleeping in a Tukul (indigenous mud hut), Suet Fong awoke every morning with a formidable list of duties. Every day, she maintained the generators powering the hospital, managed the purchasing of supplies and supervised the local builders in site construction. There was also no running water so she had to pump water from underground and filter it to make it fit for human consumption.
In addition to these regular jobs, the hospital also faced unexpected scenarios that demanded creative improvisation on her part.
“One time, a boy came into the hospital with a fractured leg. The surgeon sketched a picture of a wooden cast/device and said ‘I need this in two hours when the operation is done’,” Suet Fong recalled.
In a few short hours, Suet Fong and and another logistician had to design the cast, saw the wood and nail together this makeshift medical device.
“Luckily, there were some planks and nails lying around because we were building some cabinets for the hospital,” she said. “We took three hours but we managed to do it”
On a separate occasion, she became an amateur exterminator when the hospital storeroom was invaded by bees. In order to smoke the bees out without getting hurt, she had to fashion her own protective suit
“We refashioned a (clean) dustbin and reinforced it with mesh and towels. An Italian woman and I went in together while all the men stood far, far away,” she said with a laugh.
When she speaks about her time in volatile countries like South Sudan and Afghanistan, Suet Fong recounts it as a series of lighthearted anecdotes. However, the work she did and the challenges she faced were no laughing matter. Oftentimes, there were lives and livelihoods at stake.
While working to rebuild a MSF Trauma Centre in Kunduz, Afghanistan, Suet Fong had to deal with the problem of underage labourers.
“You know they really need the jobs but we cannot use child labour,” Suet Fong said. Apparently many of the working-age adults look 14 or 15 due to poor nutrition and the lack of paperwork in rural Afghanistan makes it difficult to separate the men from the boys.
“One time, I asked a kid who looked about thirteen to stay out of the site and he just stood outside the hospital, waiting,” she said. “And I thought, what have I done to this poor child!”
In addition to moral dilemmas, Suet Fong also faced a bombing and an earthquake during her stint in Kunduz.
One of the most bloody days that she experienced was the attempted assassination of a local official. The assailants planted a car bomb in Kunduz’s market to catch their target. Their resulting explosion failed to kill the official but it hit a great many shoppers in the market.
“More than 10, maybe 15 people came in at the same time. There was lots of screaming, lots of blood. But luckily, we had rehearsed such a scenario and everyone knew what they had to do,” she explained calmly.
As for the earthquake, the tremors didn’t even wake her.
Despite such dangers, the Kunduz Trauma Centre follows MSF’s neutrality policy and operates without the protection of armed guards. When asked whether she ever feared for her life, Suet Fong was unfazed.
“Security really depends on your luck. Just follow the curfew, don’t do stupid things or go where you’re not supposed to go.” she said cheerfully.
Far from feeling threatened or fearful, Suet Fong is keen to return to the field. It took her less than a second to answer ‘yes’ when asked her if she wanted to go back. In fact, her work meant so much to her that she did not want to return to Singapore at the end of her stint.
“I cried on the day I left Afghanistan. That was the second time I cried. You’ve gone through so much together in opening the hospital and you know you’ll never see the people again,” she said.
Apart from missing her colleagues, she was also moved by the gratitude shown to her by the local people.
“The gardener doesn’t speak English, but sometimes he would come and offer me a lemon or a piece of fruit,” she said, “These small little things are just how they show their gratitude.”
“You can really see how much they appreciate you,” she explained, “During the last few days, the local head of security, who is normally quite silent, actually gave me his phone and address and told me that I can stay with him if I return to Afghanistan.”
In the end, Suet Fong returned to Singapore in 2012, but not as the same person who departed. The experience changed her worldview and readjusting to life in Singapore was not as easy she thought it would be.
Even if she did return to Kunduz, the hospital would no longer be there: It was destroyed by an air strike in 2015. More than 40 people were killed and then US President Barack Obama issued an apology immediately after the incident.
Being so close to the tragedy of war and conflict has caused her to view life with a fresh pair of eyes. “You don’t understand why people complain so much. You don’t understand why people would queue for an iPhone,” she said with bemused laughter.
Even shopping at a supermarket is now a different experience after the privations of South Sudan and Afghanistan. When she looks at the goods and food available in a single supermarket aisle, she does not think about the best brand to buy. She thinks about the opportunity and privilege that many in the world do not get to enjoy.
“We’re so rich in material and it makes me wonder – what makes us deserve all of the resources we enjoy?”
About Médecins Sans Frontières
MSF is a non-governmental organization that provides medical relief in countries affected by conflict, epidemics and natural disaster. The organization received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 for their humanitarian work.
As Médecins Sans Frontières has not been registered in Singapore, Singaporeans may donate to the organisation’s causes via its Hong Kong office.
Aside from doctors, MSF is also in need of non-medical professionals for the efficient running of its medical activities and programmes. For those interested to work with MSF, kindly visit MSF’s Asia website.