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Japanese nurse rushes to front lines of world conflicts: 'I can't do nothing'

Doctors Without Borders surgical nurse Yuko Shirakawa (Photo courtesy of Doctors Without Borders)

Yuko Shirakawa is known as the Japanese nurse who "best knows the battlefield." Palestine, Yemen, Syria ... For the last seven years, the 44-year-old has worked on the front lines of conflicts in 16 places across the globe.

    In June and July of this year, Shirakawa provided medical care in Mosul in northern Iraq, which was under the control of the extremist terror group Islamic State (IS). Then, for about three months up until October, she worked as a nurse on the outskirts of IS's "capital" of Raqqa in northern Syria. Now, she continues her work in the northeastern Al-Hasakah Governorate of Syria.

    Originally from Saitama Prefecture, Shirakawa built up experience at a local hospital, and graduated from an Australian university nursing school. In 2010, she joined Doctors Without Borders.

    "I can't afford to do nothing," Shirakawa says of volunteering again and again to work on the front lines of war zones. Standing at only 152 centimeters, she sometimes will stand from the early morning until late at night in the operating room. Almost all of her patients have life-threatening injuries, like severe head wounds and arms or legs that need to be amputated.

    "It's difficult work," she says. "But there is an end to my work here. But for the local people, there is no such end in sight." That's why she keeps going.

    IS used the residents of Raqqa as human shields, and buried land mines around the city to prevent anyone from leaving or entering the city. Meanwhile, each country involved in trying to recapture Raqqa continued their airstrikes. In the middle of this chaos, she was called to provide medical care to families whose members were severely wounded by the explosion of land mines during their desperate attempt to flee from the relentless airstrikes. Even in Al-Hasakah, she provided care to victims of car bomb attacks and booby traps that occurred around the city limits.

    While IS shows signs of weakening, Shirakawa remains unwavering. An end to the Syrian civil war is still far away. Issues such as rehabilitation for the seriously injured and psychological care for the children in the aftermath of the war are continuing to pile up.

    "I want people to know what's happening," Shirakawa says.

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