French sailor's "floating hospital" brings hope in Bangladesh

by AFP/Helen Rowe, Aug 27, 2007 | Destinations: Bangladesh

Yves Marre, a Frenchman with a passion for the sea, decided in 1994 to sail an unwanted barge from France to Dhaka with a vague plan to donate the boat to a worthy cause. Then he would return to Paris and resume his life as an Air France cabin steward -- or so the original plan went. Today, 13 years later, he is still in Bangladesh running, along with his wife Runa, a "floating hospital" that provides a vital lifeline for some of the nation's poorest and most vulnerable people. He tells AFP Dhaka bureau chief Helen Rowe how he found an unexpected and rewarding new life in the impoverished south Asian country.

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The Jamnua River, Bangladesh, Aug 3, 2007 - In a tiny aircraft hundreds of feet above the swirling waters of Bangladesh's mighty Jamuna river, Yves Marre points though the haze to a tiny dot on the horizon.

As the plane descends, the speck in the distance slowly comes into view, revealing itself to be a brightly-painted red and white barge moored incongruously amid the river's bleak and desolate landscape.

Now known as the "floating hospital," 10 years ago this former oil tanker, which Marre sailed from France to Bangladesh in the hope that someone might put it to a good use, was nothing more than a rusting hulk that no one wanted.

Today it is a symbol of hope, dispensing healthcare to thousands of the country's poorest and most deprived who live on the river's many chars, or islands.

"The chars are terrible places to live, the population is expanding more than anywhere else and you see all these children, but there is no future for them," says Marre, a Frenchman, whose mild-mannered demeanour belies a steely resolve to do whatever he can for the largely forgotten char dwellers.

"There are not even the most basic medical facilities. Sometimes they are so poor they cannot afford even to take the boat to go across to the mainland, and if they get there they can't afford to see a doctor," he adds.

The plane comes into land, skimming noiselessly along the water's surface and coming to a halt a stone's throw from the hospital.

A large crowd has gathered to watch. Skinny children wearing baggy homemade shorts gaze in wide-eyed wonder at the plane and its passengers.

Among the poorest of the poor in one of the world's most corrupt and impoverished nations, char people are used to being cheated and exploited and are naturally wary of outsiders. So when Marre first arrived in 2001, the people he hoped to help, instead of welcoming the hospital, reacted with fear and suspicion.

"In one place people started to come and they were telling us 'why are you stopping here with a big ship like this? What do you want?'," he recalls.

In an attempt to allay their fears, he invited local leaders aboard for a tour of the boat.

"They were thinking we had some ulterior commercial or political motive so we invited them for tea. We let them look at everything in the boat. We told them 'this hospital is for you'. They couldn't believe it," he adds.

The vast Jamuna river in northwestern Bangladesh is dotted with hundreds of chars. On these constantly shifting silt and sand masses live an estimated 6.5 million people who cannot afford to live anywhere else.

In a country where 40 percent of the population of 144 million lives on less than a dollar day, char dwellers have to fend for themselves. In addition to a lack of health care, there is no education, no sanitation, no work, and no access to electricity or water supplies. Worse still, they face the constant threat of losing their simple bamboo homes to floods and river bank erosion.

Each year, around six million people, many of them char dwellers, are left homeless by the loss of around 2,400 kilometres (1,488 miles) of river bank. Often families will have lived in a particular spot for several decades.

Unaware of the plight of the char people, but with a strong desire to make a difference to some of the poorest in society, Marre in 1993 set about securing an old barge under a French government scheme to recycle boats that were no longer economically viable.

Today, the converted 45 metre (145-foot) vessel has a six-bed ward, an X-ray machine, facilities for minor surgery as well as for obstetric, gynecological, and essential dental care.

A medical team of two doctors and four nurses is often reinforced by visiting specialists who give up their holidays to volunteer on the boat.

Together they treat thousands of people a year, many of whom have never seen a doctor before.

The boat, managed on a day-to-day basis by Marre's Bangladeshi wife Runa Khan, travels around the chars staying one or two days at each island before moving on.

Great care is needed to navigate the treacherous currents and channels of the river, where, as Marre puts it, "one wrong move and you can be stranded all winter".

Originally from the southern French city of Toulouse, Marre, 56, a former Air France cabin crew member, had always had a passion for adventure.

A keen hang glider and paraglider, who also taught both, he once achieved the dual feat of being arrested in both France and Britain within 24 hours after building a motorised glider and flying it across the English channel.

After a string of other adventures, including sailing solo across the Atlantic while still a novice sailor, he succeeded in lobbying the French government for one of its unwanted barges.

In January 1994, Marre and just one other crew member set off for Dhaka.

When, part way through the journey, the exhausted pair appealed to friends to "send someone else," they were joined by a recently released bank robber with no sailing experience.

On arrival in Bangladesh, Marre sought the help of his future wife Runa's father and it was arranged that he would donate the barge to a Dhaka-based medical organisation.

Believing that his job was over, he went back to Paris, but soon returned saying he felt he should "see what was happening to Runa and also to the barge.

"Runa was OK but the barge was not," he recalls. "The barge was rotting. I was so disappointed I thought I had to do something," he says.

Jolted into action by the state of the boat, Marre launched a rescue plan. He paid for the vessel to be maintained out of his own pocket and even succeeded in getting Mother Theresa to visit which resulted in a sponsor coming forward.

In the meantime, Marre and Khan married, but all was still not well with the barge which ended up abandoned once more in a shipyard.

Having set up a tourist boat tour business, Marre was now forced to watch as the barge fell into a terminal state of disrepair.

"Everyday we were sailing past and I was feeling terrible," he says.

Again he embarked on a rescue plan, aware that this time the chances of success were slim at best.

"I was trying to raise money for a project which had already failed, for a boat that I did not own and on which there was money owed," he says.

The answer to Marre's prayers came one day in the form of a visiting head of Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch food and household products giant, who arrived as a guest on one of his river excursions.

Impressed by the couple's evident vision and drive, Unilever offered to fund the project for three years. The offer led to other sponsors coming forward to help with the 148,000-dollar annual running costs.

Three years later Unilever agreed to continue its support, and two years ago the Dubai-based airline Emirates also pledged funding for a second boat.

Success has enabled the hospital to expand its services to include treatment for conditions such as cleft lips and club feet, although this has also brought difficult decisions.

"Do we fix up 60 children with club feet who could end up as beggars on the street or revive one old man who dies anyway six months later," he says.

For Marre, who is now permanently based in Dhaka with Runa, their young son and Runa's two grown-up sons, it has been a long, sometimes tortuous, but ultimately fulfilling journey.

"When I started from France I thought if I didn't do something with this barge no one else would," he says, adding that he could never have imagined how it would change his life.

He is now hard at work overseeing the construction of the second boat which is due to be operational by the end of the year, while two new ambulance boats will also soon be boosting the service.

If the project's future now seems assured, it is only, say admirers, thanks to the grit and determination of Marre and Khan.

Marre, however, remains characteristically modest about his role.

"I saw it as a personal responsibility," he says. "I just knew I could do something that would provide a certain amount of help."

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