Earlier this year, I had the privilege of traveling to the Darfur region of Sudan under the auspices of International Medical Corps (IMC), hoping to bear witness to the tragedy there and the work of IMC to alleviate the suffering of affected communities.
As our plane taxied to the terminal building at Khartoum airport, I saw a red carpet being unrolled. It turned out this was the maiden voyage of KLM's service to Sudan and the carpet and fanfare were for the Dutch Minister of Overseas Development. Although we were subsequently bussed to a different part of airport, we still received the metaphorical red carpet treatment from IMC, and I would later learn that this was extended to all of IMC's beneficiaries in Darfur.
A trip to conflict-ravaged Darfur is not for everyone, but for me it was a life-changing event, watching IMC staff at work in the middle of what the UN has termed "the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today."
The destination of our group, led by good friend and fellow witness Lee Bycel, was Nyala, South Darfur State, which, because of the conflict, is a boomtown with a population of over a million. It is the largest of IMC's three centers of operation in Darfur. We toured the primary health care projects IMC already has up and running and learned first-hand from IMC staff returning from assessment visits to more dangerous parts of Darfur just how dire conditions are in many, many outlying communities without medical facilities.
I was lucky enough to spend time with Eunice, a nurse/midwife who works between a makeshift clinic at Al Sereif camp, about 20 minutes drive (or two hours walk) outside Nyala, and another semi-permanent clinic at Al Jir.
Following her through her workday opened my eyes to the realities and challenges of the lives of the internally displaced persons. As I watched her treating her patients, their individual horror stories emerged and I was shocked by how similar their stories of suffering were.
Each day, the sick waited patiently and without complaint in the blistering heat to receive basic medical care, supplemental feeding and immunizations provided by IMC. Each child was tested for malnutrition with a simple but ingenious device called a MUAC, which, by measuring the circumference of the upper arm, shows which children are dangerously malnourished. Each pregnant mother was given a tetanus shot, which helps to save two lives -- the baby's when its umbilical cord is cut, and the that of the mother, who often needs an incision to deliver, as many Sudanese women have had genital circumcision.
As Eunice treated patients for routine care, she would continually scan those waiting, identifying the dangerously sick in her own low-key system of triage. Those who were desperately ill were ferried to the Nyala teaching hospital in IMC SUVs (the standard working vehicles of all NGOs), which double as ambulances.
The pride of Eunice's working life in Darfur is clearly the new labor and delivery room at the Al Jir clinic. It is a simple room by American standards, but it is clean and offers the new crop of obstetric patients enormously improved delivery conditions. In fact, Dr. Solomon, the medical director for IMC in Darfur, reported that on a recent assessment visit to an outlying area in Jebel Marra he witnessed maternal/fetal death rates of 20% -- a staggering number.
Living conditions, too, are bleak at best and the desolation of the camps is hard to convey, but the presence of the IMC provides both short-term help and long-term hope. I found the IMC staff to be universally committed and impressively non-political. They are in Darfur to help save lives and achieve this without indulging in advocacy.
Eunice's enthusiasm for her work as a midwife is joyous in an otherwise tragic and grim working environment. My greatest disappointment on this trip was that no one gave birth while I was there.
Eunice and other IMC staff hire men and women from the camps to help in the clinics and, by providing them with work and pay, save even more lives. One male helper I met is now the breadwinner for 16 of his own children and 17 orphans from his village, and several women Eunice introduced me to at Al Sereif can now provide basic food for their fatherless children. Any woman who can earn even a few dollars is spared having to forage for firewood and the attendant risk of rape.
One beautiful but profoundly scarred woman, Aisha, witnessed the destruction of her village and the murder of her mother, father, husband and son. She looked me in the eye and implored: "Please take me home with you..."
If only I could have done that.
In the meantime, my goal is to help IMC help women like Aisha rebuild their devastated lives.