A Doctor in Darfur

22 Aug

From IMC

I’ve been meaning to write a few words on Darfur for a long time but the sheer scale of it always defeated me at the outset. How and where does one start? The convoluted history, the tangled internal and international political climate, the celebrity drive, the economic realities, the unrelenting suffering…Then today I received an email from a friend about an interview that some of you might have caught on the Tavis Smiley Show on PBS. The featured guest on Tuesday the 21st (along with Natasha McElhone of Californication, below) was Dr. Jill John-Kall of the International Medical Corps, one of the NGOs that is doing some valuable work saving lives in southern Sudan.

I’ve already written about Ms. McElhone this week, so now it’s Jill’s turn.

I’ve known Jill for years and years through her sister who’s one of my oldest friends (damn, has it been that long?) but as I remember it, I first met her when she was working at a clinic in the Bronx. I’m a fairly shallow person and my referential points match so I’ll just say if you remember ER from the first season, then that’s the sort of gritty work she was doing back then.

Today she’s the Medical Director for IMC in Nyala, Darfur and she’s one of an increasing number of youngsters of South Asian descent who want to put their education to uses that their parents never dreamed of in the non profit sector (have you been reading Zehra Rizvi in Sri Lanka, btw?). She writes far more eloquently and knowledgeably than I ever could on the subject so I’ll just let her do the talking:

On ground realities:

Hope is defined as a feeling that events will turn out for the best. I sometimes wonder if hope will ever return to Darfur. I caught a glimpse of it last year from about February to May 2006. Of course, once the Darfur Peace Agreement was signed, it ironically seemed to signal the end of hope. Since then, the security situation in Darfur has worsened steadily and shows no signs of improving. The humanitarian space has become severely restricted and attacks on aid workers have increased. According to a joint statement released by the UN Country Team in Sudan in January 2007, in December alone, 430 humanitarian workers were relocated, 29 vehicles were hijacked and more relief workers were killed in the last six months than in the previous two years combined.


During a recent trip to our field sites with a visiting colleague from Washington, D.C., the insecurity arrived at IMC’s doorstep. That Sunday, an IMC compound was hit by armed men who stole a vehicle and attempted to kidnap staff. Although no staff was hurt, all of us were quite shaken. We had left that site just hours before. What if we had decided to stay? Would things have been different if the armed men saw two women in the compound?


Some have asked me why IMC hasn’t pulled out. After this most recent incident I was starting to wonder myself. On the helicopter flight back to our base, I looked out the window and saw five trucks loaded with men, some were thought to be armed. I viewed the remains of several burned villages as I recalled the stories told by our patients and staff about the atrocities they had endured at the hands of the “Janjaweed”. In the distance, I spotted smoke billowing from the side of a mountain. The smoke was rising rapidly and I could see no one. If there were people running away, where would they go? Were some family members already dead? Would they be considered a “female-headed household” or a “child-headed household” once they arrived somewhere safely? It was too difficult to think about.

On her experiences as a doctor:

As I stood there in the clinic watching the little boy, I thought that I wouldn’t wish this feeling on anyone on the world, the notion that after seeing a child, you just wait for the bad news. The feeling that as you lay your hands on a child, listen to him breathe, watch his eyes and listen to his heart, you leave him in God’s hands because you know deep inside, that he will not live long. My thoughts are interrupted as the nurse comes to tell us that the little girl with malnutrition has died. The family is distraught, I weakly say to the mother “malesh, malesh-sorry, sorry.” I feel like the lowliest creature on earth. What an inadequate statement to make, “sorry, sorry.” Am I sorry that she lost her child or am I sorry that we didn’t save her? Is my “sorry” in empathy for her or is it asking forgiveness for me? As I hold the crying mother, I can feel her tears on my arms.

It’s hard yet engrossing reading. I really hope you check it out.


Posted by on August 22, 2007 in Life, Newsmakers, Politics


3 responses to “A Doctor in Darfur

  1. Sujatha

    August 24, 2007 at 11:08 am

    I keep reading about Darfur and Congo and the children and like you, I don’t know where to start. I wrote a small, pathetic post on the Congo a few months back, but it is woefully useless. Thanks for pointing to what Jill is doing.

  2. Sujatha

    August 24, 2007 at 11:08 am

    You’re a rockin’ girl blogger. Check it out!

  3. Amrita

    August 24, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    God, the Congo just icks me out. I began writing about it at one point and I just couldn’t write. I have to wonder what people on the ground must feel in that case. Thanks for reading Suj 🙂

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