Red Cross nurse Gail Corbett has spent seven years working in countries ravaged by war, drought and famine. Tired of being an observer, it was simply her time to help, she tells Bess Manson.
Gail Corbett digs a woman from the rubble of a bomb-blasted building in Gaza. Another Palestinian victim of the 50-day war in 2014. There’s an image of Corbett (far right), a Red Cross nurse and health delegate, with Palestinian ambulance crew stretchering the woman off against the backdrop of devastation, IV bag in hand, a sense of urgency in her stride.
She was probably making her breakfast when her home was blasted by an Israeli shell, Corbett later recalls.
“We all helped get the concrete off her and managed to get her out and on the stretcher. It was probably one of the scarier things I’ve had to do.”
She doesn’t look like someone easily rattled. In fact, despite close encounters with gun-wielding warlords in Somalia, near misses with bombs in Afghanistan and some rather perilous times in Gaza and Iraq, Corbett, 55, appears unflappable.
Talking about her experiences in ravaged hotspots around the world, she is decidedly measured, deeply pragmatic, which is probably why she is good at this.
“I have a healthy interest in security but I’m not scared, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. You have to have a healthy regard for your own safety but I used to ride a bike in to Wellington Hospital and that’s almost more dangerous. It’s just a different risk I’m exposing myself to.”
All the same, the tranquil surrounds of her mother’s home in a very sleepy Levin, where she is resting up before her next deployment, must be a radical contrast with her life overseas.
Corbett was most recently in Somalia where she worked in hospitals, monitoring drugs and equipment, training staff and improving systems.
The Red Cross left Somalia in 1996 because of the increased danger with an unstable government, warring clans and militant groups such as Al-Shabaab. Based in Nairobi, Corbett flew in for several days at a time to work in hospitals in Mogadishu, Kismayo and Baidoa.
Most of the wounded she saw were as a result of Al-Shabaab’s bombing campaigns. But every day there are conflict casualties – it might be between Al-Shabaab and the Government, military forces and those with illegal weapons, or between clans. “It’s a very volatile situation,” she says. There are armed people driving around everywhere, she says. There’s a lack of trust for anyone, by anyone.
She and other Red Cross staff travelled with guards. They did security courses. They are as well prepared as you can be, she says.
“When you get to the Somali delegation they talk about what would happen in a kidnapping situation, proof of life and all that. By that point if you haven’t realised there’s a risk, you have had your ears and eyes closed.”
Adding to the war woes is a catastrophic drought and subsequent famine in the Horn of Africa and Yemen. And with famine comes other problems.
“We saw a lot of outbreaks of disease, like cholera. There’s either no water or if there is the quality is poor. They don’t have the capacity to filter or purify because these are poor populations.”
Her job was to arm the hospitals with the skills to deal with these outbreaks and to prepare for their inevitability each year. One hospital had a malnutrition feeding centre for the under fives. It opened with 60 beds. When Corbett left that had increased to 200 beds and that’s set to double again. “You just want to be able to do so much more. “Emotionally it’s very, very hard work. But it’s like being a nurse anywhere, what we see is very tough. But if you were destroyed by it you couldn’t do your job. You have to learn coping strategies.
“For me it’s simple things – like access to a swimming pool. When I’m in Nairobi I swim every day. I go away for the weekends. Sitting around worrying about the work every day doesn’t improve the job you do.”
The rewards are the positive results. “You see these malnourished kids and babies who come in and look as if they are at death’s door. Maybe within two or three weeks they are up and smiling and bouncing around. I think seeing that had a profound effect on me.”
Raised in Scotland and Paraparaumu, Corbett wanted to be a nurse from a very early age. “It was not something I can remember consciously thinking about. It was just always something that I was going to do.”
After training at Taranaki Base Hospital she and her husband moved back to Scotland, from where her family had emigrated in the 1970s. After a stint furthering her studies in midwifery they returned to New Zealand where they raised their two children.
She worked in Christchurch Women’s Hospital and later Wellington Hospital, predominantly in the neonatal unit, but she had always hoped to work with the Red Cross one day. In 2010, with the break-up of her marriage and her children both flown the coop, she decided that day had come.
“I’d done high-pressure jobs as a clinical coordinator in hospitals and worked as an educator. I guess what I wanted to do was something completely different in a completely different place, but to stay in nursing.
“We only see one side of anything here and people make some pretty hard judgments on what is presented to us on the news. This was an opportunity to see the big picture. To see what was behind these stories. What we see is quite light and not very balanced.
“I thought this is my time to do something in a small way. Instead of just watching what was happening in the world I can do something to help right now.”
“These people who just want the best for their children, but the best is within a 300-square kilometre prison.”
Her first posting was to Iraq from 2010 to 2011, where she worked as an intensive care ward nurse in the southern city of Najaf.
The nursing workforce in Iraq before Saddam Hussein’s rule was predominantly from overseas – the Philippines and India. When the conflict started people got out if they could, so the Red Cross went in to help build up the skills of people working in the hospitals.
“Men would be pulled off the street – there are no women in the workforce – and told they could either go to war or be a nurse, so you would have these people working in a ward or in an emergency department with very little knowledge, but a lot of hands-on skill because they learn on the job.”
The hospital’s emergency department would often be inundated with mass casualties, many of them as a result of the general conflict – pilgrims targeted on their way to the Holy city of Karbala, for example.
After her first year she was hooked on the work and accepted a position in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where she worked for eight months.
She recalled one family who came into the hospital in Kandahar after being blasted by an improvised explosive device (IED) – three little girls, an aunt and a father survived. The mother was killed.
A month after she left, a bomb exploded in the hospital carpark she used every day.
Corbett shrugs. You are trained to look around for anything different in a place where everything is different, she says. These are the risks you take.
Her third posting saw her in Gaza in 2014. A health delegate training doctors and nurses, she worked in the main trauma hospitals. Every day there would be rockets going out of Gaza and everyone would wait to see if it was a big enough rocket for the Israeli air force to send out a drone and drop a bomb in retaliation. You never really know how it’s going to go, she says.
Negotiating between parties to enable the Red Cross to get medical supplies into Gaza was high on the agenda. Lines of communication must be kept open to ensure ambulances have safe passage to retrieve the wounded.
She recalls being deployed with the Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance staff after a whole area of the city had been flattened by shelling, with a bulldozer leading the way to remove the rubble from the road.
“One of my roles was to help add protection to the Palestinian Red Crescent ambulances. You negotiate a window when there’s going to be no fighting and once that’s established Red Cross vehicles can lead the column and be at the back, so we’re recognisable.”
It wasn’t just about getting the wounded out, it was about getting people in to assess what kind of weapons were being used. There’s always more to the work than meets the eye, she says.
The most difficult thing about Gaza was not the bombs, the threat to life, the noise and chaos of it all. The worst thing was leaving everyone behind, she says.
“It’s not just about leaving friends behind, some of these people will never get out of there. And every time there’s another war it just gets tougher for them.
“It’s hard to see these people who just want the best for their children but the best is within this 300-square kilometre prison.”
Her work has concentrated on running efficient hospitals but it’s not only health projects that the Red Cross focuses on. The management team negotiates with all the parties involved in conflicts – governments, rebels, factions, she says. “They are negotiating and disseminating. They are out there educating about international humanitarian law, the proper way to fight, how they should not involve civilians. We want to talk about this to anyone who will listen, especially the armed forces, the legal and illegal arms bearers.
“To run a hospital it’s not just about the supplies coming in, it’s being able to land in that town and then travel safely into the hospital. It’s about making sure the hospital is neutral ground and available for all sides of the conflict, all clans.
“It’s a bit about using health as a tool to get into a community to educate about other agendas. Protection of civilian populations is huge part of the work we do.”
While those involved in a conflict might not like being instructed in matters of warfare by the International Committee for the Red Cross, that’s the mandate provided by the international community through the Geneva Convention, Corbett says.
In a few months she’ll travel back to Afghanistan. Even the smallest success in places facing turmoil makes her work worthwhile. “A lot of this was about my curiosity to go there and see what I could actually do.
“Sometimes you can do very little except make sure a little pocket of people are getting cared for.”
“I thought this is my time to do something in a small way. Instead of just watching, I can do something to help right now.”
Gail Corbett in Levin, a world away from hotspots she works in. Above right: Corbett (far right) in Gaza.