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My good friend was killed for saving lives in a war


20 years ago today I lost my good friend, a wonderful nurse and colleague, Cheryl Thayer. Armed gun men stormed the sleeping quarters in a clearly marked Red Cross field hospital in Chechnya.

Friday December 16, 2016

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Dr Jenny Stedmon has been a Red Cross aid worker in wars and disasters for 27 years.

My friend was shot several times in cold blood. I can still remember the day as clearly as yesterday. While I was working in my safe Australian hospital in Perth, my friend's life was ended. It was horrific and devastating.

The first time I met Cheryl, was on the border of Cambodia and Thailand.  I worked as an anaesthetist in a surgical team at a hospital in Khao I Dang, with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Cheryl was a nurse from New Zealand. We travelled from Geneva together and we immediately formed a strong bond.

My biggest fears at the time were whether I could perform my job to the best of my ability in different and tougher circumstances to the already high tech environment I was used to in England back in 1989.

I remember no fear except this, and I was helped by Cheryl and the team to adapt and learn how to work in a more back-to-basics field hospital in a very remote setting.

We worked for three months as part of a team, treating victims of land mine injuries and general medical ailments where health services were lacking. We became very good friends.

I came back to Thailand later that year to have a holiday with Cheryl on the Island of Kho Samui, one of her favourite spots.

I remember talking with Cheryl about our aims and aspirations, Red Cross, the work, life, the universe and everything. She told me about her previous experiences working in war zones, the ups and downs, the dramas, the highs and the lows.

Cheryl had promised herself that she would probably stop this kind of work when she turned 40, because of the risks and the concerns of her family and friends.

But she never turned 40. 

Nothing prepared me for hearing of Cheryl's death, in a clearly marked Red Cross hospital in Chechnya on the 17th of December 1996, just shy of her 40th birthday.

All the things we had talked about, the dreams and plans were lost in one night. I remember the sense of futility that such an event could happen to people trying to give medical aid. It made no sense then, and it makes no sense now.

Six other aid workers were brutally shot by masked gun men in the Chechnyan hospital that day.

It was a deliberate attack aimed at killing aid workers, who were providing much-needed medical care in an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) surgical hospital set up to help people wounded in the war ravaged region.

Twenty years later and I fear it's getting worse for health workers in wars. 

I continue as a medical aid worker for Red Cross as I have a personal belief in the principles of International Humanitarian Law and the original aims of Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions. 

I heard on the news that there are no hospitals left functioning effectively in Eastern Aleppo. Even the one remaining children's hospital has been targeted and damaged so severely that it is no longer able to function. We see the casualties every day of the week on our TV screens or streaming on our devices. 

This is not just a problem in Syria; it is happening in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, almost anywhere there is armed conflict. 

In 2016, there have been 156 aid workers killed, wounded or kidnapped around the world. Tragically, at least 56 have lost their lives in the line of duty, while trying to help others. 

Despite repeated efforts to remind all armed groups and armies of their responsibilities under the laws of war, atrocities continue.

It's the people trying to help, local and international health care workers who are being killed. Patients, women and the young are being blown up in hospitals and health clinics. This must stop.

When I think about working in another war, I have to factor in fear of personal harm that may occur in the course of my trying to help as a doctor. This fear applies equally in war, disasters and health crises such as when I went to fight Ebola.

On this day, we should celebrate all the selfless aid workers around the world. Let us not forget those who have lost their lives, been kidnapped and injured while helping others.

Some aid workers around the world fall ill and become fatigued. Our work takes its toll emotionally, with great impact on family and friends.

So let's celebrate the lives of the many people who make this commitment. We must strive to make it a much safer world for aid workers and the people we are trying to help. Please join us in remembering and recognising those who give so freely.

Our humanity depends on it.

Dr Jenny Stedmon is an anaesthetist and Red Cross aid worker, who has been providing medical care in field hospitals in wars and disasters for 27 years.  

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