Egyptian trauma surgeon on Somali front line epitomizes UN humanitarian role

17 August 2011

Omar Saleh was leading a peaceful and comfortable life as a trauma surgeon and university lecturer in Egypt when the call came from the United Nations health agency: surgeons urgently needed in war-torn Somalia. He didn’t have to think twice.

“I should be where I’m needed,” he said today as the UN prepared to mark World Humanitarian Day on Friday. “And this is where I’m needed. I’m a trauma surgeon. This is a conflict. Trauma is everywhere. I must be there,” he told the UN News Centre by telephone.

Dr. Saleh, 41, married and a father of two, who studied at the universities of Cairo and Ismailiya and at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and now operates in Somalia under the auspices of the UN World Health Organization (WHO), is just one of the tens of thousands of humanitarian workers whose selfless efforts are being celebrated by the annual Day.

When he was a student he never imagined he would be operating in a crisis-torn country such as Somalia where 20 years of brutal inter-clan fighting without a functioning central government have killed and wounded scores of thousands, but since 2007 he has been wielding his potentially life-saving scalpel not only in Mogadishu, the capital, but in other violence-wracked regions of south and central Somalia, including Baidoa.

It was in Baidoa that he faced one of his worst days. There had been ferocious fighting and bomb explosions and 24 gravely wounded people had been brought in to the ‘hospital,’ a very basic institution far removed from what is usually understood by the term. Of these, Dr. Saleh and another surgeon he was training managed to save just two.

Over the four years he has been in Somalia, a country where shellings, artillery barrages, shootings, explosions and suicide bombings are almost a daily, sometimes even hourly, occurrence, Dr. Saleh said he had treated thousands of trauma cases. Asked how many of these he had saved, he replied simply: “Thousands.”

Nearly all the people he treats are civilians, many of them children, although some of them could be fighters. “The fighters usually have their own places to go for treatment,” he said. “But we don’t know if some who come to the hospital are fighters. We don’t ask.”

Every three months, Dr. Saleh returns to Cairo to spend time with his family and restore his energies, ready to return to the front line of conflict and save as many severely wounded people as he can.

When you watch the news and see or hear that there have been five injured, six or seven injured, or 20 injured, these are just numbers, Dr. Saleh said in a video interview posted by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). But “those five injured or 20 injured, these are not numbers. They’re people, they’re a father, they’re a mother, they’re a child, they’re a brother. I get to know that.”

When he was a student, he was told to be “anything, but not a trauma surgeon. But if I’m not going to stay here, if I’m not going to do it, who else? Nobody,” he said.

Because hospital facilities are so basic in Somalia “you feel that your hands are tied, particularly when I know that the cure is simple and easy, but I don’t have it,” he added.

“Being a humanitarian also means that I care about people and I have enough morals and thoughts and ideas and ideals to follow that and do my best. My worst fear is to go to the grave with my knowledge. I need to make sure that I pass it before I go, that I’m not taking it with me.

“If I could stop something in the world, it would be war, because I find it a stupid thing. People are dying because of what? Land? Who’s more precious, the land or the people? The people.”


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