TESTIMONY: A Senegalese at the Heart of Distress in Haiti

This blog provides the English translation of an article titled "A Senegalese at the Heart of Distress in Haiti," which features on the work of a Senegalese officer embarked on APS Gunston Hall, currently supporting efforts in Haiti. The author, Aminatou M. DIOP,  was part of a Senegalese journalist delegation who visited U.S. Africa Command headquarters in December. The original article, "TEMOIGNAGE : Un Sénégalais au cœur de la détresse en Haïti,"  can be found at :    http://bit.ly/9TLkrh

January 23, 2010

The USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44), which was to deploy to Africa as part of the Africa Partnership Station (APS)—a maritime security cooperation framework between the United States and some African countries—has suspended her missions and is participating in efforts to assist the Haitian people. Our fellow countryman, Lieutenant Assane Sèye, is among its multinational crew (made up of Americans, Europeans, and Africans). Yesterday, he gave an interview over the phone to the Senegalese Press Agency, the RFM, and the Le Quotidien daily. These media outlets came to the embassy of the United States in Dakar after the sailor made sure that his hierarchical superiors were informed of the interview.

The American ship, the USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44), is expected in Dakar in April. But last week’s earthquake in Haiti changed the ship’s initial itinerary. The vessel was rerouted to Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, on a humanitarian mission. On January 15, the ship left its military base at Little Creek–Story, in Virginia, to take part in the humanitarian assistance the U.S. Navy is bringing to the Haitian population. A young Senegalese sailor, Lieutenant Assane Sèye is a member of the ship’s crew.  The U.S. embassy in Senegal telephoned Lt. Assane Sèye.  While on board the USS Gunston Hall (it was 11:40 a.m. in Senegal and 6:40 a.m. in Port-au-Prince), Lt. Assane Sèye, spoke about the time he has spent in that country since January 18. “We’re a few nautical miles from the military base. Each morning we leave the ship to go on land and we return at night.”

The military base has thus been transformed into a hospital with all necessary structures for first aid, surgical procedures, and hospitalizations; it is a clinic. In the event of evacuations, “we have a hospital ship that can receive 600 patients who are taken there by U.S. Army helicopters.” In the four days they have been there, “we have had nearly 200 patients transferred to the hospital ship,” says Lt. Sèye, who is impressed by the number of patients admitted each day.

100 Times More Emergency Cases than in the Main [Hospital]

Some patients come on foot or by ambulance belonging to the various local humanitarian organizations and have suffered various traumas, “sometimes with both arms or legs broken. Some of them come because they no longer have any sensation in their limbs or because they were stuck somewhere for days, are completely dehydrated…There are a number of unimaginable wounds.” When we ask about the situation on the ground, Lt. Sèye answers: “Take for example the emergencies at Dakar’s main hospital and multiply by 100, the influx of incoming patients and multiply that by 100, that’s the severity of the problems. It’s something you can’t exactly wrap your mind around, even if I describe it to you.” He insists: “These are things that I personally have never seen. You have to be here to believe it.” A rather difficult case was that of a lady who “gave birth in extremely complicated and difficult conditions…You can’t imagine how happy we were to see mother and baby safe!” stated Lt. Sèye.

Work is also made difficult by the number of patients who come in each minute, just to be treated, to get information because they do not know where to go, or who even want to leave Haiti, he explains. He indicates that upon arrival they have to go through triage and, depending on the case, are referred to specialists. “Those with physical wounds requiring hospitalization or evacuation” are the priority. The most difficult are those with lesser afflictions who have to free their hospital bed since there are also rows of chairs to accommodate some, just to give them time to rest and to receive something to eat and drink. “But, in the evening, these people have to leave because we have to control the hospital.” And managing them is complicated. However, “when they see sick people lying on the ground, they understand that they need to give up the bed. But once outside the clinic or the hospitalization room, a lot of diplomacy is needed to make them leave the base” where grassy areas have been set up where they can lie down, says Lt. Sèye, who is in charge of convincing them. At the end of the day, “I always manage to convince them even if this is not easy since those spaces cannot accommodate big numbers.”

The volunteers are another problem, he continues. “Somebody who loses everything, who leaves his home and walks for kilometers to say, ‘I want to help,’ doesn’t understand when we say that we have enough volunteers. Each morning we see 200 volunteers, but we work with 50 volunteers including professors, doctors, sociologists, etc. But we have limited their number to better channel the work.”

How long will the assistance last? “For now, the system put in place to help the Haitians is working very well. Consequently, the influx is stronger. But whether we will be leaving in a week or two, I don’t know.”

Senegalese Pride

Designated by the Senegalese navy, Lieutenant Assane Sèye joined the team of the Africa Command of the United States (AFRICOM) on board the USS Gunston Hall (LSD 44) on January 9, in Virginia, in the United States. The USS Gunston Hall was expected this April in Spain,  West Africa, and Dakar, for drills and operations. But the earthquake in Haiti occurred and the ship was diverted to Port-au-Prince. An unplanned mission that this Senegalese soldier says he experiences “it is difficult to see these people on the ground, suffering, who need to eat, who need water and medical assistance. Whatever your knowledge, whatever the means at your disposal, you are limited when faced with them. You can’t do everything. You treat them and then they have to leave. It’s difficult. Later, they have to eat and we don’t have food and something to drink for everyone. It’s very difficult.” However, there are nice moments within all this chaos stemming from the pleasure of being there and helping the Haitians. “Because I consider them to be my brothers, Africans. So it’s a tremendous pleasure to be here, but it pains me very much to see them in these circumstances. You have to see the city yourself. It’s completely devastated.”

In any event, this young 29-year-old Senegalese is a model of pride—not only for the Senegalese. This is proven by the testimony of the USS Gunston Hall’s (LSD 44) onboard commander, Captain Cynthia Thebaud, who is full of praise for our fellow countryman: “Lt. Sèye carries out invaluable tasks by interacting with the Haitian patients as well as those who accompany them, and by coordinating the team of Haitian volunteers who have come to help us in our mission. He’s proactive, very engaged, and has an amazing disposition. He gives the impression of being everywhere, continuously coordinating, etc.”

Enlisted in the Senegalese Army in 2005, Lt. Sèye and the Africa Partnership Station (APS) are responsible for coordinating instructors, following up on programs, and checking whether the teaching is done properly. During the Haitian mission, he is in charge of managing Haitian volunteers at the hospital set up at the American military base.

The Africa Partnership Station provides a cooperation framework set up by the United States that seeks to establish maritime safety and security in African partner states. It organizes military and civil capacity-building drills involving those units in charge of watching over the maritime territories of the said countries, awareness sessions on the protection of fishery resources, and the sharing of expertise in various maritime areas.

By Aminatou M. DIOP

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