Six Months in Sudan

Published on counterpunch, by CHARLES R. LARSON, June 12-14, 2009.

Sometimes you start writing one book and end up writing another.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in Six Months in Sudan: a Young Doctor in a War-Torn Village, James Maskalyk’s painfully honest account of his six months as an emergency physician in a remote area of Sudan.  Answering the call for Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), Maskalyk served as a doctor in a town called Abyei, trapped—one might say—at the crossroads of the warring factions within the country.  His account of his duties is often disturbing, particularly in the details of the horrors he encountered virtually every day.  But the real story is the transformative nature of the experience itself, which exposed him to the depths of his self, and packed such an emotional wallop that he will probably never be the same. 

In Abyei, Maskalyk says, no one dies from old age.  Life is too hard for that.  The doctors working for MSF are obliged—because of their agreement with the Sudanese government—to take care of the soldiers, who need their help but, perhaps more importantly, serve at an emergency facility for all Sudanese in the area.  These people, because of their limited education, more frequently than not go to the hospital only after their situation has become dire.  Trigger-happy soldiers are everywhere.  Women arrive after botched deliveries of their babies.  Maskalyk encountered virtually every conceivable complication with childbirth …

… The narrative juxtaposes sections from Maskalyk’s recapitulation of his experiences in Sudan with passages from the blog he wrote while he was in the field.  In one brief  section from the blog, the author distills the essence of why the situation is so bleak: “dead body problems.  when someone is sick in a village, they don’t come to the hospital straight away.  there is no road.  transport is too expensive.  often the family calls a traditional healer, and they spend their carefully collected money, likely saved for this exact contingency, for treatments that do not work.  the patient worsens.  there is no choice but to spend what money they have left to hire a donkey, or a car, and bring the patient to abyei.  they don’t have enough, so they sell their only goat, or a piece of their land, to their neighbors.  they use the money to get the patient to the hospital, ten minutes too late.”

Yet for all these profound insights, the real story is not Abyei’s but Maskalyk’s.  Walking into the MFS office in Geneva at the end of his tour in Sudan, Maskalyk suffers acute culture shock.  “Everything is straight, right angles.”   And when he is finally  picked up by a close friend in Toronto—his home before he took off for Abyei–he notes, “I want to go back to my apartment.  Sit in the dark.”   Worse, guilt soon takes over, because he believes he didn’t do enough to help the people of Abyei … (full text).

Six Months in Sudan, on amazon.

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