Remote Working

Even at such an early hour of the morning the wind that picked its way across the red stone of the desert was warm. Eddie brushed a wisp of his curly brown hair out of his eyes and scanned the horizon one more time. Three plumes of dust rising through the heat haze.

He unclipped the radio from his belt. “Marie, I think we’ve got another thirty coming in. Should be here in a few hours.”

“Thirty.” His fellow worker sighed. “I’ll get a team to move the south-west fence out a bit.”

Eddie could hear the resignation in her voice. “Okay. I’m heading back. I’ll do my round and meet you at the office.”

Fifteen minutes later and he could see the outskirts of the camp. Wisps of smoke rose from various points. A tall wire fence ran in an uneven line heading north and south from the wide gap which acted as the main gate. Further south, out of sight from the route Eddie walked, was the shallow river bed of the Burepo; now a thin trickle of its former self after two seasons without rain.

He informed the wardens at the gate of the approaching refugees then walked back to the clinic and collected his bag. This week he had swapped shifts to allow one of the newer doctors a chance to work from the small shack they used as the camp’s medical station. The rounds were both more fulfilling and more traumatic then working in the office. Many of those who were most in need never made it out of their tents.

An hour into his checks Eddie spotted what looked like an empty tent. Both flaps were down, there was little evidence that it was occupied, just a broken wooden box to one side of the entrance. Three children played in the reddish soil further along the line of the tents, but there were no adults in sight. Eight o’clock was when the food rations were distributed.

“Marhaba?” he called, but there was no response from within. “Hello?” he tried again.

A dog ran past chased by two teenagers. He was about to call out to them when he heard a faint cry from the tent. That was all the invitation he required. He stepped forward and pushed aside one of the flaps.

The interior was dimly lit by the sun seeping through the canvas. A stench of unwashed bodies came to him. His eyes took a moment to adjust, and then he made out the forms on the ground: two adults, a man lying on his back, vacant eyes staring at the apex of the tent; next to him a woman, curled on her side in a foetal position. The only movement came from a child, six months old, maybe a year, she was too malnourished to tell. The girl rested up against her mother, lacking the strength to cry she emitted the occasional sob.

Eddie bent down and checked both the adults. Neither showed signs of life. Their bodies were cool, the night having sapped them of any heat. He closed the man’s eyes and then reached to pick up the child. She offered no resistance. The smell of faeces rose up mixing with the other odours. Eddie turned her over and used a cloth to clean up as much as he could, then he pushed aside the flaps and stepped back out into the increasing heat.

When he arrived at the clinic Marie was there.

“Another one?” She nodded to the child resting her head on Eddie’s shoulder.

“Yeah. Two parents, both look like they went in the night. I’m going to check her over and then get back to the round.” He dropped his medical bag to the ground. “The new arrivals turned up yet?”

“No, but I’ve got a couple of teams moving the fencing around. We should have some space ready for them.” She reached over and brushed back the hair of the little girl. “Tell you what, why don’t I take this one from you. You’ve been up since the early hours and probably could do with five minutes downtime.”

Eddie was about to decline the offer, then he glanced at his watch and changed his mind. He passed the child across to Marie. “Thanks. The kids will be up by now, so I can see them before they head off to school.”

He picked up his bag again and stepped through the makeshift door that sectioned off the back of the building. There were two camp beds against one wall and a set of lockers pushed up to another. One of the beds was already taken: another worker, Dagmar, lay on her stomach.

Eddie put his bag in a locker and span the combination. The low cot sagged under his weight. As he settled onto his back it pulled in tighter around him. He closed his eyes and shut the world off, leaving behind the sparse African plains.

The sounds of the camp drifted away. Other noises started to reach him. His children running around in the kitchen, Evelyn, his wife, telling them to sit still and eat breakfast. He opened his eyes again and looked around at the dimly lit basement of his home. After a couple of deep breaths he started to peel off the receptors from his skin. His mouth was dry. The smell of hot sand still filled his nostrils. It normally took a shower before he could feel he was physically back in America. This time there was only long enough for him to grab a coffee. He pulled on his t-shirt and jeans and headed up stairs.

—————

21 August 2009
On Wednesday the United Nations marked the first World Humanitarian Day. As armies command drones from thousands of miles away, maybe one day aid workers will be able to offer support without the need to travel half the world.

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