He’s witnessed first-hand plenty of misery, brushed with death from lethal illnesses, including: Ebola, malaria, and AIDS, and had to make on the hoof decisions whether to let the missionary work take him further- to more unpredictable and unfathomable si
He’s witnessed first-hand plenty of misery, brushed with death from lethal illnesses, including: Ebola, malaria, and AIDS, and had to make on the hoof decisions whether to let the missionary work take him further- to more unpredictable and unfathomable situations in even more health aid-deprived world spots than Haiti or Rwanda and a dozen others, where Andrius Slavuckis, a logistics coordinator at MSF, Doctors Without Borders, has toiled. “It’s not only misery and hopelessness. Sometimes, I see more of that in our western society, on a psychological level, I mean, than in those impoverished places. People are people everywhere and adapt to different conditions. They laugh, joke, play, and chat. They have a good time too,” Slavuckis said in an exclusive interview for The Baltic Times.
Andrius, how did you get affiliated with the humanitarian aid NGO, Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres)?
I knew them since I was about 8 years old when my father joined the organisation. When I was 13, my dad was posted to Azerbaijan and he brought all of the family with him. My sister and I went to a Russian school and we were very much exposed to the type of work that my father was doing (working with Azeri internally displaced people from the conflict with Armenia in the Karabakh mountains) and the special way of life that humanitarian aid workers are leading. Though I had a lot of fun there, and the experience had opened the world up for me, I still didn’t see it as my way of life. After finishing school, I entered Vilnius University, and 4 years later, received my diploma in archaeology. By that time, I was really hungry for travelling and seeing more of the world, and was committed to pursuing my master’s somewhere else. So, I went to stay with my father in Geneva, Switzerland, where he worked as a program manager at the MSF office. I was hoping to learn some French and enter university in France. Meanwhile, I started volunteering at the MSF office, helping out in the documentation department, but I was not sure where to go from there. So, I decided to still pursue my archaeology career. I entered a university in the north of Finland to do a master’s degree. Soon thereafter, I realized that even though I loved archaeology, I missed a sense of reality in it, so I found a school in France, Bioforce, that prepares logisticians, administrators and project managers for humanitarian aid organizations. After 9 months of very intense studies mixing theoretical and practical work in the French mountains, I was a bit more ready to meaningfully contribute to the work of a humanitarian organization…
From the media reports, I see your father had been involved with the organization for 22 years of his life. What are the most vivid memories of his experiences that he’s shared with you?
My parents always tried to protect us from unnecessary evil and cruelties of this world. So, I did not hear lots of negative or scary accounts when I was young. Both of my parents went to work in Angola as soviet doctors in 1989. I was six years old at that time. I remember receiving Polaroid pictures of them standing with hundreds of African kids. It didn’t seem real to me. While in Angola, my dad was approached by MSF and joined the organization. My mother returned home to continue raising us and worked as a sports doctor. From then on, my dad would spend 6 to 9 months on missions, working in all kinds of hot spots like: Bosnia, Chechnya, Rwanda, and so on. Years later, I found out about some of the horrors he had gone through. Getting evacuated with a small airplane minutes before the airstrip was completely bombed in Angola, working in enclaves under constant Serbian sniper fire in Bosnia, getting poisoned and almost killed by insurgent Shamil Basaev’s people in Chechnya, after being suspected of being a Russian spy, and so on. I really hope he will take some time and write a book worthy of his life before all the memories fade away.
How different, I mean from your father’s stories, did your first missionary encounter go? Where did the first trip take you?
My first mission was in post-earthquake Haiti and lasted for two months. It was at the time of a terrible cholera outbreak around the country in 2011. I was assigned to work as a logistician with our emergency team in one of the cholera treatment centers in a dilapidated neighborhood of the capital Port-au-prince. Before leaving, I called my father for advice. He had seen many cholera camps during his professional career, and explained to me that there was nothing to worry about. What I saw and experienced in reality was everything that my father told me it would be, and so much more….
Whereas my father had to work in places without decent communication devices or information, I have the luxury of being constantly connected to the Internet wherever I go. He was performing surgeries in all kinds of crazy circumstances, and now we have deployed inflatable surgeries that can be set up in 24 hours. These are just a few examples to illustrate the fact that comparisons between those days and my missions are quite different. Nevertheless, I still call him for advice every time.
Does being a Christian aid worker create sometimes awkward situations in predominantly Muslim countries? Correct if I am mistaken, some of them being helped might think the Christian aid workers want to proselytize them?
MSF is so diverse, that sometimes Christian workers are a minority in the project. In many projects, I was working hand in hand with Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Baptists, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, and agnostics. We are all working towards the same goal and sometimes risk our health or lives for the sake of others
Most of the time, I don’t even know what faith my colleague is following. In some projects, I have to remember to allocate my staff some time for prayers. In case a particular faith is prosecuted in a country where MSF has a mission, we send only expatriates that do not belong to that particular faith to avoid any possible problems. But these are exceptions rather than the rule. I was working in Libya and Yemen, and I had a very good relationship with my Muslim brothers and sisters there.
Too many troubles in the world arose because of people blindly following instructions of misguided religious teachers. As a medical organization, we constantly face issues trying to contain the spread of HIV in countries where Christian missionaries have forbidden people to use protection during intercourse and preach abstinence until marriage, which, let’s be honest, is extremely difficult to achieve, especially in areas where polygamy is entrenched in the way of life. Abortions are not allowed and thousands of women die every year because they were deprived of access to quality services, and rather chose terminating unwanted pregnancies with the help of a pill or unqualified people. In predominantly Muslim countries, these issues are especially hard to bring up. In most cases, we don’t even know the real figures of HIV infections or abortions because it is such a taboo.
Where have the MSF missions taken you so far?
I started in Haiti. My job was to organise the closure of a cholera treatment center since the epidemic seemed to go down at that point. But just as I arrived there, we experienced another hike in cases and the center remained opened for a few more years. Then, I was offered a position of logistician to open a new project in South Africa dealing with HIV and TB. It is a very ambitious and big project in a rural area of the country, and it is still running to this day. After one year of my initial contract, I extended for another six months, and then moved on to work in Khayelitsha (Cape Town) in a very well-known research project in the slums of this beautiful city with one of the highest rates of inequality in the world. Then, together with my then girlfriend and now my wife, who is a doctor and was working with MSF at the time, we went on to another HIV/TB project in Lesotho for a few months.
Thereafter, I was offered a position of support logistician in Tripoli, Libya, where I spent four months trying to open a migrant oriented project in the desert area in the south of the country and supporting a project in Tripoli dealing with psychosocial problems of migrants in detention or people who have been tortured or experienced violence during the Gadhafi and post-revolution eras. After that, together with my
wife, we were sent to South Sudan to work in the internally displaced people’s camps in the capital Juba. Then there was Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, where I was in charge of all logistics activities of Msf-belgium section in the country.
After MSF opened projects in Italy, Turkey, Greece, Serbia and other affected European countries, I was sent to Belgrade, where I was in charge of MSF logistics.
My last mission, which I returned from only a bit more than a month ago, was in Yemen.
You’re dealing with an increased predisposition to a variety of potentially lethal illnesses - cholera, malaria, HIV, Ebola virus, tuberculosis and others. Are you always 100% sure you’ve not contracted any of them?
Well, to be honest, I am never sure. I can only tell if I feel that I was exposed to certain diseases or not. For example, I can definitely say that I don’t have HIV just because I have not engaged in activities that could potentially infect me with the virus. I can make sure I don’t get infected with cholera, just by following basic hygiene practices and drinking clean water. As for tb, MSF asks me to have a regular appointment with a doctor, and to have a chest xray done to make sure that I am not infected with tb. Even though I took anti-malarial medication in South Sudan, I was still infected. It happened just after the day that I forgot to take my pill. I have had all kinds of vaccines injected in my body, and it keeps me protected to a certain extent. As a side effect of tasting various exotic meals all over the world, I get food poisoning on every mission I go on. Ebola was a bit trickier. At the time of my mission, there was still a lot unknown about the virus, and a lot of local health care workers were getting sick and dying. Even some international staff were infected. We were all paranoid to a certain extent. No touch policy, no sharing of food or things, keeping safe distances between infected and healthy people, overly protecting ourselves – all to make sure we stayed safe. In its initial stages of infection, Ebola displays symptoms similar to those of common flu or malaria. Just before leaving on the mission, I caught flu while on training in Brussels. As a consequence, my departure was delayed to make sure I would not infect my co-workers on the project and would not freak out anyone contracting the common flu. My colleague on the project, another logistician from Malawi, woke up one day before his departure from the project showing all kinds of symptoms pointing to Ebola. He was immediately isolated in his room, and all visits were done wearing complete personal protective equipment. Blood results were taken and quickly checked in the lab. You can imagine thoughts running through our heads that day, remembering how we had dinner and a farewell party together, guessing how he might have caught the virus while working in the office most of the time. Once blood results came back, everyone was so relieved to find out that he only had malaria! So there is always a risk to get infected, but we do everything that’s possible to minimize those risks and protect ourselves and our colleagues.
Do you take any extra precautions when handling a lethally ill patient?
I don’t usually handle lethally ill patients myself, since I am not a medic. During cholera and Ebola missions, I was involved in handling dead bodies that are basically pools of infection at the time of death. All kinds of precautions were being followed while doing that, especially in the case of a patient who died of Ebola. Even though the clothes we wore were not any different from those that medics wore when they saw patients, the procedure of handling a dead body required a whole lot of steps to make sure that the virus did not escape-- neither from the waterproof body bags where the body was placed and sprayed with very potent chlorine solution, nor from the mortuary where the decontamination process was performed. It was quite a delicate procedure, with lots of people involved and very strict succession of steps taken.
Has your family and wife approved of your precarious dealings on the missions?
My family is very supportive of my choices. Especially, because we have been connected to MSF for so many years. My wife knows very well, that I do not take unnecessary risks and trusts my judgment. There are however missions that I refused, because my family was not feeling good about me going to certain locations.
My wife is a South African doctor and currently works for the department of health in a public hospital in rural South Africa. We met in 2011, when I was working on a project in her country. She was working for the same organization and was based in the main office in Cape Town. We met during her visits to the project. A few years later, we went together to South Sudan and Sierra Leone.
Do you get emotional seeing misery and hopelessness? How do you cope with emotions? Did you ever cry on a mission?
It’s not only misery and hopelessness. Sometimes I see more of that in our western society (on a psychological level) than in the places where I usually work. People are people everywhere and adapt to different conditions. They laugh, joke, play, chat, and they have a good time too. There is nothing better than a dance party in one of the Central African bars. People want to feel human and to be treated decently. Unfortunately, it is difficult to achieve in degrading circumstances that so many people find themselves in today.
There are certainly days when everything boils up and emotions take hold of me. But, usually I am able to focus on what I have to do and keep working. The best inspiration and source of energy is seeing how local staff are so determined to keep going. This was very clear in Sierra Leone, where our local medical staff and hygienists saw themselves as Ebola warriors in the fight for their country and their people. It makes you want to move forward and to contribute as much as possible to that struggle.
I think I cried only once, when a member of our staff drowned in a swimming pool in the Central African Republic. It was an untimely and completely unnecessary death, which really affected me on a personal basis.
There are so many ethical dilemmas that we have to deal with on a daily basis. Sometimes it is really hard to accept that nothing can be done or that we haven’t done enough. Frustrations often resurface. At times, I just feel lonely. Then I call my wife or a friend, and it helps. We also try to talk as much as possible between colleagues and vent our frustrations. There are also psychologists available at headquarters. We can always call them and discuss anything that bothers us.
By profession, you’re an archaeologist. Don’t you miss the excavating? How often do you feel the urge to unearth the layers of the historic sites in, say, Yemen, Syria or elsewhere?
I miss excavations a lot, but I don’t miss all those days I spent in the library working on my thesis. I have participated in quite a few excavations in Lithuania and really miss that sense of adventure and communality that I used to feel finding all kinds of prehistoric and not so old artifacts, while slowly and methodically working the soil with a group of friends. But with the years, I got distanced from archaeology and don’t think about it whenever I am on a mission with MSF. Besides, security rules do not allow me to go and inspect archaeological sites in Yemen.
Do you know where you will end up being next with the Doctors Without Borders?
I am planning to take a small break now, but hopefully will be back to business soon, wherever MSF proposes me to go.
Where do you see yourself in 20 years from now?
Ha! I hope we are travelling the world somewhere with my wife and our children are happy doing what they love! In any case, I hope we are all improving the world one step at a time.
My wife and I on our way to work in the morning
An Italian ER doctor assessing a child.
A health promoter at cholera treatment center
A mobile health promoting team
A festive lunch at the hospital
Ebola Management center
Bye bye all!