Neil Thompson is an electrician from Port Macquarie, NSW, who recently spent 10 weeks working with Médecins Sans Frontières in Mosul, Iraq.
“On my first morning, I was taken to West Mosul to survey the suitability of a building for a proposed field hospital. This was an out-of-this-world experience – the landscape was alien to me, as I have never been exposed to such levels of destruction. Civilians had been replaced with armed men and vehicles of war… eerie. The proposed field hospital building was close to the frontline in the old city of Mosul. Mortar shelling was happening not far away. In the sky were helicopters, fighter jets and drones. The ground shook with each aerial strike and the air crackled with weapons fired into the air. I was perplexed. While Médecins Sans Frontières was generally well accepted in north Iraq, war can be indiscriminate so safety and security was always at the forefront.
"The ground shook with each aerial strike and the air crackled with weapons fired into the air. I was perplexed"
I kept wondering to myself during the first two weeks of my placement – what the hell am I doing here? But the life we live in our Western world is so full of luxuries. I felt guilty having everything on tap while so many people do not have access to the basics of life: food, water and medicine. Médecins Sans Frontières aligned with my beliefs of the importance of impartial, free access to medical aid and taking a neutral stance in the field.
I had been given a 10-week assignment in north Iraq, mostly in Mosul, an active war zone. As the ‘flying’ electrician, I was there to facilitate the safety and management of electrical systems used in buildings and properties in projects across north Iraq. Médecins Sans Frontières is running a range of projects in northern Iraq including providing trauma care for the war-wounded and critically ill, maternity and paediatric care, mental health support and primary care for displaced people. My role involved visiting various projects and assessing electrical installations to ensure they were safe and met the needs of people using them. Our days consisted of designing new electrical installations for field hospitals, travelling back and forth to Erbil to source quality materials, managing the installations ourselves as well as providing hands-on technical training for local staff. As this was an emergency assignment, we completed two field hospitals, seven guest accommodation houses and two offices during my 10 weeks - so we didn't hang around!
So many of the stories I came across were horrific and heartbreaking as no one is left untouched by war. One story that has stuck with me is about a casual worker named Mohammed. Mohammed had four children and was living in the newly liberated East Mosul. Like many people after a war experience, he was keen to work, especially for a good cause. Mohammed had an acceptable level of English compared to my embarrassing four words of Arabic, which meant that I could use him as a translator and trainer. I could explain the more technical side of the job to Mohammed, and he could then train the other daily workers. Over time, Mohammed’s knowledge and confidence grew and he was able to run projects that I had planned, with minimal external input. Mohammed’s hard work and commitment to learn was recognised and he was given a contract of employment, becoming a part of the Médecins Sans Frontières national team in Mosul. I'm very proud of Mohammed's achievements and he will stay in my lasting thoughts of my time in north Iraq.
This assignment was the hardest thing I’ve ever done both mentally and physically, but having met so many amazing people, both local Iraqis and foreigners – I left Iraq smiling and happy to have taken part. I can't wait to go on another assignment.”