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Reaching out to the poor mountain villages in the South of Bolivia (Tarija)

In the last Newsletter I wrote about the work of Doctors On Mission in Haiti from Bolivia. And now it’s Bolivia’s turn.

After Willy De Vylder, friend and (former) elder of a Flemish congregation (church), had started to follow up the construction of the clinic at our Mission Base in Tarija, South Bolivia in January-February, was allowed to experience a medical expedition in the mountains and could check the “condition” of the hospital car, it was now my turn…

Willy – a tough man in his 70s – who, as a civil engineer, showed me the many motorway bridges by bicycle in 2010, which were partly built under his leadership – sent me the necessary reports. This one – along with Dr. Ino’s reports – gave me a good idea of DM Bolivia’s work.

Here are some excerpts from Willy’s reports that testify to the work in Bolivia: “What touches and moves me most deeply is the commitment and the sacrifices of the medical team of Doctors on Mission. In addition to the Paicho area west of Tarija, they also visit the Chaco area east of it. They are also building a medical center on the outskirts of this city with 250,000 inhabitants. The ground floor is almost finished. Money has yet to come in for the top floor. I am allowed to help with this a bit with my knowledge, through conversations with the architect and the engineer, all in my rickety Spanish. Apparently they got my proposal, and we’ll discuss that further in the next few days. This has already partly happened, and things are taking shape.”

After participating in a medical expedition, Willy also wrote the following:

“We drove 1 ambulance jeep and 1 other jeep with a group consisting of: 3 doctors (2 men, 1 woman) 1 dentist, 1 pastoral helper and myself on bumpy dusty mountain roads. And believe me, it was driven on! Over a mountain pass at 3900 m. No straight stretch of road longer than 50 m. Finally we arrived at their medical center Centro de Salud, Paicho Sud at 2700m altitude. Totally remote. But later I would find that there were many more “remote” villages where we went to provide medical care. After lunch we left for a hamlet, and there we held consultations for hours…. Around 8 pm, near the aid center, we received hot food from the sister of Dr. Ino who grew up there and where his father and the other family still live. It’s fantastic that such a boy from the mountains could study to become a doctor, and actually, thanks to the Flemish doctor Rik Celie, is going to help the people of his own region again. And believe me, I have only experienced a fraction of the sacrifices made by these doctors and their helpers…  On Thursday we left for a hamlet with the name Condor. This was just a travel adventure! An hour and a half of bumping and jerking on narrow roads, kilometers through a dry riverbed, and driving through a river with clear water twice. We received warm food from the people, and then hours of consultation. Doctor Oscar then went on foot through the river high on the other side in the mountains to care for people who could not make the journey to the local school. He came back with wet shoes. On the way back, the same way… But due to the rains in the higher mountains of 4000m, the river had turned brown and the water was dangerously high. We managed to drive through it again. On Friday we leave for Hornos, the people there seemed very familiar with the medical team. At 9.30 pm we start the return journey in the dark from the medical center Paicho Sud. Wet roads along the way, danger of skidding, through the clouds (thick fog), the driving skills and the knowledge of the road of the 2 doctor drivers meant that we were back in Tarija at 11.45 pm. Once over the 4,000 meter high mountain pass it was a continuous descent along wet, slippery and potholed muddy roads. Still I was not afraid, but a few prayers could be done….. At night sometimes heavy gusts and in the evening looking at the stars, so clear, you could see the Milky Way, which is very rare with us. All day long I sang within me: O Lord my God, when I marvel at the heavens! Then a further “course” was set to another remote village of Potreras. As the other times, many children were brought: and as in Belgium for child welfare: weighed, measured, examined, and everything registered. Everyone has their medical record that is kept. And exhausted, the DM doctors then return to their posts, and there are some patients again; an additional hour of consultation. What a bet!

The “South Base” or the work from Tarija is running fine! Also the construction of the base itself, although we do indeed need a lot of funds to further expand this medical mission base.

From the Amazon region, threats continue to come. These threats are completely illegal, but this does not change the fact that I remain the target of an organized “money extortion” there. I can’t give any further details because everything is going “online”. Of course this can be done personally. In general, I can confirm that we have developed a very good plan whereby we will be able to move further into the Amazon region with medical teams in the medium term. Instead of the “drug town” Sta. Ana de Yacuma (where extortion happens) the work will now be done from Sta. Cruz. The “alternative” plan is really ingenious and currently works 100%.

The plan is a confluence of several events that were put into perspective. For example, it was special how we came into contact with the work of “Compassion International” in the poorest (giant) neighborhoods around Sta. Cruz. They were feverishly looking for a medical solution for the thousands of children who must be followed up within their “plan”. We already work together, especially in the largest but also poorest suburb around Sta. Cruz. This district is called “Plan 3,000” and 300,000 people already live there. 90% consists of immigrants from poor Andean areas.

I myself was able to participate in this “suburban” while further strengthening the relational ties with Compassion International. The atmosphere was relaxed and good. For me almost more of a “relaxation” in addition to the rather heavy administrative work to keep DM-Bolivia on the right “tracks”. In Sta. Cruz we will therefore set up a small base. This base will then serve as a “springboard” to not only explore the many unreached areas in the Department of Sta. Cruz but also the Amazon.

Via airplanes we would fly over the “red zone” (where the money extortion takes place). From the extreme North-Eastern point of Bolivia (border with Brazil) we can then sail up the many major rivers to reach the interior of Beni. Both the Department of Sta. Cruz and Beni are many times bigger than Belgium.

And what about the Andes base? The funds coming in for DM are minimal. The crisis, both in the US and in Europe, has brought this situation into sharper focus. Our objective remains that all funds must be used to the maximum for the purpose for which DM was founded: “Medical expeditions to the poorest inland areas”. There was an urgent need to wind down our administration. Our reasoning here is that the local doctors working within DM should be able to make simple financial and other reports themselves. The funds that have been going to Bolivia for 20 years now have exceeded the incoming donations for many years. However, we have no debts. This is thanks to a single large donation from a Belgian businessman. But this fund is also shrinking visibly… The bottom line is that the monthly money flow to Bolivia will be reduced by 57.2% in 2 years’ time. A difficult, but in our opinion, achievable goal.

So for the Andes base we are looking for “partners” who want to occupy and maintain our base. The extra money that would be released as a result will of course be used for the full 100% to pay for our medical expeditions.

Many discussions have already been held with organizations, etc. The aim is therefore not to withdraw from the Andes region, but to ensure that the entire DM network runs as efficiently as possible, taking into account the financial reality.

At this time, Romulo is making a huge effort to reach the Azurduy region. Romulo was THE guide par excellence in the start-up of the work more than 20 years ago. His heart goes out completely to this region, his native region. We also have contact with local doctors and dentists who are willing to help on a voluntary basis so that these people – where DM used to work so much – can also receive further medical help.

Furthermore, there is a lot going on in N. Pakistan, but unfortunately I can tell very little about it in general terms, because these people follow DM’s “doing and letting” sometimes daily and “closely” via FB and of course also via the DM website.

Best regards again,

Rik & Carolien

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