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The Angel of Darfur: A nurse reveals the brutality in Africa’s darkest country
Last updated at 09:31 21 February 2008

Three years ago, Lisa French Blaker, now 36, was a successful nurse with all the trappings of a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, yet she felt something was missing. Then she was given the chance to join aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres and become one of the few Westerners working in war-torn Darfur, in the heart of Africa. Lisa witnessed on a daily basis the brutality and cruelty destroying the region. Here is her extraordinary story

Nurse in hell: Lisa French Baker helped sick people in Darfur
What is it like in Darfur, people ask.
Is it as bad as they say?
And they lean forward, wanting to know the worst, drawn to the questions the way a child is drawn to a story of a wolf in the forest.
I always say Darfur is the best and the worst I have ever seen.
I lived and breathed both extremes through 2005 and 2006.
On a good day, the sun shines, the grasses dance in the breeze and children laugh.
On a bad day, the heat strips the skin from your body, the smell of burning hangs in the air and everything feels hopeless.
To many in the West, the conflict in Darfur appears complicated and overwhelming, even unsolvable.
So they walk away, unable to face the reality.
But if you pause for a moment and look a little closer, you will find that behind the horror and the conflict there are people not so different to you and me.
Years ago, when I started training as a nurse, I travelled to Zanzibar for an adventure.
En route I met another nurse, a Belgian woman called Amy. She did humanitarian work and I learned all about her work and admired her passion.
She had these wonderful bright eyes, full of determination, and I wanted to be like her – to share in her commitment to making a difference.
That picture of Amy stayed with me, despite my good nursing job, nice car and house.
While many of my friends found comfort in their lives, I felt numb and restless.
I had already joined a few temporary medical missions abroad in the past, but each time I returned I couldn’t readjust to my city life.
I felt like the odd one out among my friends – that there was an aching need to explore the world.
For months I agonised over what to do – remain in my comfortable life or risk it all, physically and financially, for a chance to make a change.
Then one day in August 2005 I rang my friend Sarah at Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). She answered the phone from the middle of a displaced people’s camp in Darfur.
I agreed to join MSF, and four weeks later found myself thousands of miles from home.
For me, it was about change.
I wanted desperately to make a difference to the people of Khartoum.
Two days after arriving in the Sudanese capital, where I was put up in special expat quarters, I was ready to fly to the Darfur region to join my MSF team. I was nervous but wanted this challenge.
Darfur is the size of France and it takes more than two hours to fly in a straight line from Khartoum to the capital of South Darfur, Nyala.
We flew over the hot, flat, barren landscape.
The occasional road leading to a village would catch my eye, leaving me wondering how on earth people survived down there.
With scarcely a tree or shrub in sight it seemed like a vision of hell.
Not long after my arrival at the MSF base in Saleem – a town that had recently been the scene of a battle between government soldiers and Sudanese Liberation rebels – the team I had joined sat around the breakfast table as we made plans for the day.
The local staff had heard talk of a large group of people camping in a river bed 35km away.
They were Zaghawa – one of the tribes targeted by the conflict.
They had been attacked and driven out of their homes.
We had heard that the group was running out of water.
Their nearest water source was four hours away by foot and our translator, Adam Ali, had met a woman who had just returned with her two children.
Both children had fallen ill with no shelter, and only contaminated water.
One had died on the way back to town and the other was seriously dehydrated in our clinic.
We decided to go and find the group.
Every journey outside Saleem required the permission of the local authorities, government security officers, intelligence officers and the military – none of whom were sympathetic to the Zaghawa – so we had to pretend we were going on a sightseeing trip.
We were told by the security guards on duty, toting AK47 rifles – that we could go, but that we had to return by 4pm without fail.
If our mission was discovered we could be arrested – or perhaps worse.
After a long drive we found the people we were looking for.
As we neared their camp I could see spots of colour, scraps of fabric tied to trees, but my eyes blurred in the heat.
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Heartbreaking: A group of Sudanese people queue for clothes
As we drew closer, the river bed became clearer. It was filled with hundreds of people.
There were no aid agencies here, no colourful UN tarpaulins to protect them from the sun. No queues for food or lines at the hand pumps – the usual sights we see on television.
Instead, there were hundreds of families crowded together in the sunbaked river bed, trying to escape the heat, the fighting and their fear.
Without water or food they sat and they waited, for what, I do not know.
There was nobody coming to rescue them.
They were alone. And they waited.
It was one of the saddest scenes I have ever encountered. Our group leader, Steve, turned to me after a while and called out: “They say there are some very sick children here. Go and see what you can do.”
I nodded.
Our driver, Ahmed, and I pulled the silver box of drugs and equipment from the vehicle and set off with two men.
We followed them to a grove of trees beside the river bed.
A girl, perhaps five years old, lay in the shade.
Her mother sat beside her, legs outstretched as she stroked the child’s head and arms, and sang, softly. I knelt down beside them.
The girl’s temperature was 41C. She lay on a piece of red cloth, her eyes closed as she panted for breath.
I balanced the malaria test on two sticks I found in the sand, pricked her finger with a small needle and waited for enough blood to start the test.
Within minutes the result was clear. She had cerebral malaria, a killer in any country without immediate treatment.
There was no time for emotion – I had to focus on treating her as quickly and efficiently as I could, so I could then see as many other sick people in the time we had.
I emptied my water bottle into two cups that sat on the sand beside her – the family’s ten-year-old son who had been sent the eight-mile round trip to collect water had not yet returned.
Ahmed explained to the family what the test showed.
Within minutes a crowd had gathered, some holding out sick babies and others asking us to come to their shelters to see the sick.
Ahmed quickly explained to them why we were there and told them to bring only the worst cases to see us.
Over the following 90 minutes we saw an avalanche of patients.
Babies with diarrhoea, children with malaria and adults suffering from dehydration.
I worked at a frantic pace, touching, listening and palpating as I examined each one.
Antibiotics, paracetamol, malaria treatment and rehydration salts flowed from the drug box.
Our medical group laboured without pause, diagnosing illness, treating wounds and organising patients.
Despite the frenetic activity, I felt calm.
I was working hard and part of something that mattered. But all too soon it was over.
“You guys have to pack up now if we’re going to make it back to Saleem by 4pm,” Steve called out to us just before 2pm.
But still the crowd queued and pushed, asking, pleading and begging for more time. “My son, my baby, my father …please …” I looked around at them all and felt my heart sink.
“We can’t leave them, Steve,” I said, feeling overwhelmed by the need.
“There are people here who will die without treatment.”
“We have to go or we’ll not be any use to them in the future,” he replied.
“Pack up now! With luck, we can return in a few days.”
Closing the lid on that metal trunk was one of the hardest things I had ever had to do.
Telling those men and women, that crush of pleading bodies, that no we couldn’t help, we had to leave them. With a throbbing head, I closed my eyes and turned away.
I knew we had to go, to check in with the security officers in Saleem after our “scenic drive” in the bush – to shake hands with and smile at the very people who had driven these people into the wild, to struggle and die alone. We drove back in silence.
As I stood beside Steve outside the security office in Saleem shaking hands, I felt sick.
“Welcome again in Saleem,” said the younger officer. “I hope you had a good time.”
I smiled as I’d been taught and looked at my boots, saying nothing.
We didn’t make it back to the river bed for months.
War has a way of throwing priorities into disarray. Other needs surfaced in Saleem, we found more groups of displaced people, and security limited our movements to the south.
We heard that the little girl with malaria whom we treated in the shade had died. Her father returned to town weeks later and gave us the news.
I have never forgotten those people, waiting for us to return.
I think of the hot, stinging wind, the sound of the plastic being whipped by the wind through the thorn trees, and I see them watching me.
Who knows where they are now, where they moved to when they realised that no one was coming back to help them.
That is the reality of war; the waiting and the despair.
It still keeps me awake at night.
Every day presented different challenges – some that were hard to bear.
On one occasion one of our local outreach workers asked us to go and see her cousin who she said had been badly hurt in a Janjaweed militia attack on her compound.
When we entered the compound we saw a group of men sitting around a young woman.
They sat in the shade, a protective circle around their sister, daughter, niece and aunt.
She stood to welcome us, stiff and slightly bent as she shook hands with each of us. Miriam was only 19 and already a widow.
Her husband was killed in an attack six months before.
The week before she had been nine months pregnant.
The day we met she had no baby, no home, and her body was covered with bruises.
A week ago, she told us, a group of five Janjaweed had come to her compound, knocking over tables and kicking open doors.
They found her cowering in a hut. “What have you got in there?” asked one, tapping her pregnant belly with his gun.
“I think she’s got money inside,” said another, knocking Miriam sideways with his stick.
“I want that money,” said another.
“How do we get it out?”
They didn’t cut Miriam, and she survived to tell her story.
But they beat her with their guns, pushed her to the ground and kicked, punched and whipped her.
They laughed as she rolled, made bets as they joked who would get the money, wondering how much she had inside.
When they tired of their game some time later her baby was dead and Miriam went into labour.
Now, she sat in front of me, her eyes on the ground.
“They have taken everything from me,” she said. “My husband and my baby. Now I must leave.”
I looked at Miriam, at the scarring welts healing on her arms, the awkward angle of her left arm as it rested in her lap. My mind was blank. What could I say?
I did what I could as a nurse – I gave her tablets to ease her physical pain.
I asked her to visit me at the clinic the following day so I could examine her more carefully. Not possible.
“We leave tonight, my father, my sisters and their families. We are moving far from here, somewhere where we will be safe.”
We never saw Miriam again. Our little medical table sat at the far end of a dimly-lit room in El Wadi – a town that had been cut off from medical help by the fighting – and where we’d heard the local population were suffering violence as well as dwindling food and medical supplies.
Ahmed the translator and I squeezed on to a wooden box. Around us flies buzzed, the metal grilles over the four small windows trapping them in a prison of heat and darkness.
This was our consultation room.
We had moved through the crowd, with Musa, our driver and triage expert – who helps identify and diagnose the initial condition of patients – selecting the sickest patients and bringing them in.
The line of patients lying and sitting on the floor started with the babies and their mothers. Tiny, fevered babies with malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia and malnutrition.
We carried the sickest outside after their first dose of treatment and taught their mothers how to spoon rehydration solution into their unmoving mouths.
Musa stopped his triage in the sun now and then to supervise the women, filling their empty green soda bottles with clean, filtered water and more rehydration powder.
As if by magic those tiny scraps of life started to stir, their infant tongues moving as the water nourished them and the paracetamol broke their fevers.
Back inside, the queue at our table had grown.
Sitting beside Ahmed on the wooden box were two children, brother and sister.
“They were shot in an attack two weeks ago,” Ahmed translated.
“Their parents are too afraid to bring them to see us, so they have come alone.”
The seven-year-old boy reached out and wrapped his arm protectively around his little sister.
“How were they shot?” I asked, kneeling beside the boy and lifting his jelabiya gown.
Around his thigh a dirty bandage held a stiff, fetid dressing.
“After a rebel attack on government soldiers, those troops started shooting in the village.
“They said they were looking for Sudan Liberation Army soldiers hiding in the huts. These children were in their house when they were shot.”
Fishing around in my pocket I pulled out a paracetamol.
I opened my water bottle and held it up to the little boy’s mouth, watching while he swallowed the tablet.
“Tell him I’m going to clean his leg,” I told Ahmed.
The little boy let go of his sister and sat still, his back rigid against the wall. I cut away at the dressing and peered at the wound.
He had been shot from behind. I cleaned and scraped until pink, bleeding tissue emerged, healthy and strong.
He sat there quietly, his eyes squeezed shut and tears streaming down his face.
His thigh was hot and tight, the bacteria filling his leg with inflammation and pain.
I prepared a syringe of antibiotics and quickly injected it into his other leg. Then I pulled down his gown. He reached out his right hand towards me, wiping his face with his left hand.
“My name is Hussain. Shukran – thank you.”
And he shook my hand, the bravest little boy in Darfur.
I turned to his sister and smiled. She squealed and hid her face behind her brother’s shoulder.
I could smell her wound before I saw it.
She had been shot through the knee, her lower leg hung painful and swollen.
The traditional healer in the village had splinted her knee. Again I cut away the dressing and started to clean, scrape and inject antibiotics.
She whimpered and cried, her brother holding her tightly and whispering in her ear.
The hot, swollen knee needed surgery, proper cleaning and a course of intravenous antibiotics. Instead I dressed it and filled a bag with gauze and bandages to give to her parents.
I only hoped they knew what to do.
I handed the boy their antibiotics and paracetamol, and watched as he led his sister out through the room. They hobbled and stopped often, both in pain, and their arms supported each other.
I sat back and wiped my eyes. The little girl had also been shot from behind.
Soon my time in Darfur was over.
I know we did our best, but was it good enough?
We rescued some who would have died without us and we missed others who died out of sight.
Was it worth the effort? And should we even have tried?
With my heart broken and my soul still bruised by all we saw and did and failed to do, I can only whisper yes.
Many humanitarian organisations have had to withdraw from Darfur because it’s too dangerous.
But the people still wait and hope we will return.
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  1. craiglock Says:

    Reblogged this on Unsung Heroes.


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