Legally, I couldn’t touch them, but ethically I had to, even if it put my life in jeopardy. In medicine there is nothing called ethnicity.
A Doctor’s Oath:
The Story of Dr. Mohammed Ahmed Eisa
By Sarah Baker
They struck before dawn. That morning in October 2002, they came on horseback. The men were praying. The women and children were sleeping. The Sudanese janjaweed or “evil horsemen,” supported by the government, looted and burned three non-Arab, Black African villages in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur, Sudan. Twenty-four dead. Eighteen severely injured, surviving mutilation and rape.
Those who lived were denied medical treatment. As a Darfurian doctor in a government-run health care system, Mohammed Ahmed Eisa, in the nearby town of Nyala was forbidden to treat them. He did it anyway. The villagers had nothing; he formed a funding group. They couldn’t afford medicine; he convinced his school friend, a pharmacist, to deliver them medication.
That decision to treat, out of mercy and defiance, catapulted Ahmed, one of the few highly trained doctors in all of Darfur, into the center of the genocide that killed 400,000 people and displaced 2.5 million. It led to him establishing the Amel Center for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims and Torture, independent of the government-run health care system, and funded by the London-based Sudanese Organization Against Torture (SOAT). It also landed him in exile, separated from his wife and eight children, and wanted for treason by the Sudanese government of President Omar al-Bashir.
Today, Ahmed, medium-sized, with close-cropped white hair, lives a humble existence in Cambridge, MA. He drifts from one living situation to another—a small sublet apartment or a friend’s couch--as he waits to get his family out of Sudan. He supports himself with the help of grants and foundations.
“Ahmed was well-known and rich in Sudan, he could have lived in peace. But he was very brave and determined to go forward with his beliefs and understanding of human rights, “ said Mossad Mahamed, a lawyer and part of the founding team of the Amel Center.
Within a few months, Ahmed and his team had treated 78 victims of violence–torture, rape, and mutilation. By October of 2007, the number had reached 520. They opened another treatment center in an Internally Displaced Person Camp, IDP, in Al Fashir. An IDP is a refugee in his or her own country.
Working at the Center meant constant risk of intimidation. At the end of October 2008, while Ahmed was at a Fellowship of Transitional Justice meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, his colleagues were arrested and tortured. The Center was shutdown.
“A doctor is not just about hospitals and prescribing. A doctor must take the responsibility of his knowledge and expertise for the well-being of the community,” said Dr. Ahmed, 58, on a crystal-clear October day in Cambridge.
Ahmed’s journey began in a small village in Jebel Marra, a verdant mountainous region of Darfiur with plenty of water and agriculture. He and his brother were the first in their area to go to school. His extended family opposed the British school fearing a Christian education for their Muslim son. But in 1958, when he was five years old, Ahmed walked for two days to reach Juldo village to start his education.
The school was a culture shock. Everything seemed foreign to Ahmed from the dry, dusty landscape to the diversity of people. Arabic was the lingua franca and if he spoke Fur, his native language, he’d be lashed. He was terrified. “I needed to think in a different way,” he said.
Fortunately for Ahmed, he was a quick study. He learned the language and avoided the lashes.
At age 10, he earned admission into the only intermediate school in West Darfur, a region the size of Texas with a population of 7.5 million people. He then won entry into the only high secondary school in Darfur, in Al Fashir, and eventually landed at Khartoum University, one of two universities in all of Sudan. He expected to study agriculture, the business of his region. He never considered being a doctor because, “I don’t like blood and am so scared to see injured people,” he said.
But, gaining entry into medical school meant a huge honor. He would be the first in his region. In addition, his villagers were regularly plagued with goiter because of the lack of iodine in the water as well as a water-borne parasite, schosmais, which he himself had spent three months in the hospital battling. He was haunted by these conditions and hoped as a doctor he could help his people. Putting aside his dislike of blood, he went to medical school.
His training as a doctor, like his education, was meteoric. He went from running a single-doctor hospital with 40 beds where he treated everything from malnutrition to tuberculosis to head of epidemiology at Nyala Hospital in central Darfur. Here he had to solve community-wide outbreaks of sickness and disease.
One of his biggest challenges as a doctor in a corrupt political system came in 1999. An outbreak of meningitis started in Senegal and traveled through East Africa. Often, meningitis can be controlled through quarantine and air conditioning. Without these as options, Ahmed needed to vaccinate as much of the population as possible. He worked with some local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to acquire the vaccines. He went to collect the money from the government to pay for the shots and it was gone. “The government minister took the money to pay for his pilgrimage, “ he said. Disgusted, he resigned from the job.
Ahmed went back to being a regular doctor in the government-run health care system and was working in Nyala Hospital in October 2002 when those three villages were burned.
“Legally, I couldn’t touch them [the victims], but ethically I had to, even if it put my life in jeopardy. In medicine there is nothing called ethnicity,” he said.
“Ahmed’s motivation was driven by the need in his community. The need was so great and someone had to do something, so he did,” said Monika Kalra Varma, the former director of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights who awarded him a RFK human rights award in 2007.
Exile hasn’t stopped Ahmed from doing what needs doing. His mission, now, is to help move his homeland from war-ravaged to negotiation and reconciliation. “To reach a negotiation, we must live as Sudanese together. Let us agree to build a new nation with new terms where all people have equal rights. And let us set basic rules—democracy, transparency, and accountability—for how we rule our country,” he said.
Ahmed is working at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) in Cambridge to help bring about this change. In April, he published with PLoS (Public Library of Science) medical evidence of the atrocities and human rights abuses he witnessed as a doctor and director of the Amel Center. This scientific work can be used for future peace and reconciliation because it contains evidence of how the attacks were conducted, who conducted them and what happened between the years 2004 through 2006.
“This is the only document coming from inside Darfur,” said Ahmed. All of the evidence to date has been collected from refugee camps in East Chad because the government in Sudan is so restrictive.
As an affiliate of Harvard’s Humanitarian Initiative, Ahmed also wrote, Toward Peace with Justice in Darfur, a tool to help guide his people through the implementation of a justice system. And, he’s working toward creating Darfur Solidarity to connect Darfurians in America and keep them connected to their community back home.
“Because of his position as medical doctor and elder he is respected and trusted in different communities,” said Varma. This makes Ahmed uniquely positioned to help his country heal.
Ahmed last saw his family in March 2009. He tries to call them every weekend. The American Embassy in Khartoum closed in September halting his family’s paperwork for immigration. After numerous unanswered emails, he finally heard from an official. He’s now trying to transfer his request to the embassy in Cairo.
Ahmed has a scar above his lip on the left side of his mouth. He fell as a 10-year-old and a stone pierced his skin through to his tooth. He decided to not have it fixed. “The scar reminds me to be cautious. You must be cautious and prepared,” he said.
Dr. Mohammed will join the Kennedy School's Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration Program this fall.
Sarah Baker is a freelance writer and independent radio producer. See more of her work at www.sarahbakerstories.com.
For more information on the conflict in Darfur read here