‘Bush doctor’ Evan Atar gets top UNHCR 2018 award

Saturday October 6 2018

South Sudanese surgeon Dr Evan Atar

South Sudanese surgeon Dr Evan Atar achieved a rare global recognition in Geneva. PHOTO | AFP 

By FRED OLUOCH
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On October 1, South Sudanese surgeon Dr Evan Atar achieved a rare global recognition in Geneva.

The 52-year-old received the 2018 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Nansen Refugee Award for his outstanding 20-year work in providing medical services to the displaced people of South Sudan and Sudan.

In an interview with The EastAfrican in Nairobi a few days before the ceremony in Geneva, Dr Atar said the award, which comes with a $150,000 monetary prize, is not for himself but for his entire team back in Maban, Bunj County in Upper Nile State, South Sudan, and will go a long way in solving some of their urgent problems.

The Nansen Refugee Award recognises extraordinary humanitarian work on behalf of refugees, internally displaced or stateless people and is funded in partnership with the Swiss government, the Norwegian government, the State Council of the Republic and Canton of Geneva, the Administrative Council of the City of Geneva and the IKEA Foundation (Sweden).

Presenting the award in Geneva, UNHCR boss Filippo Grandi said that Dr Atar embodied not only solidarity with his refugee patients but courage, having lived as a displaced person himself.

Dr Atar — from Torit in eastern Equatoria — left his job in Alexandria, Egypt, where he was working as a doctor, to help refugees and the internally displaced in Kurmuk in Sudan’s Blue Nile State in 1997.

But in 2011, the war broke out in Blue Nile, forcing him to flee across the border to Bunj State in Upper Nile, along with thousands of other refugees.

Dr Atar and the refugees walked for one month from Kurmuk to Bunj County, carrying with them whatever medicine and medical equipment they could salvage amidst aerial bombardment by the Sudan Airforce.

Now, his Maban Hospital, which he established in 2011 with the help of donors, is the lifeline of about 200,000 people.

Being the only hospital in Upper Nile after the war that broke out in 2013 destroyed all the medical facilities in the region, Maban Hospital attends to 144,000 refugees from Sudan’s Blue Nile State, 17,000 internally displaced South Sudanese, and refugees from the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia.

Nansen Medal

Filippo Grandi, right the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees presents the Nansen Medal to Dr Evan Atar Adaha, in Geneva, on October 1, 2018. PHOTO | AFP

Good things and good people

Johann Siffointe, the UNHCR South Sudan country representative told The EastAfrican that despite the gloom and suffering brought about by the civil war, Dr Atar has proved that there are still good things going on in the country.

Dr Atar attended primary school in Juba and received his secondary education in Khartoum before getting a scholarship to study medicine in Egypt.

But while most qualified Sudanese were opting to stay away in the comfort of Western and regional capitals, Dr Atar, a Canada-trained surgeon, decided to offer his services to the suffering masses for little or no pay at all.

Having worked for 14 years in Kurmuk and seven years in Bunj, Dr Atar believes in making a difference in the lives of the displaced.

“Let us share the little we have and make a difference in the world that we live in because we are all human beings and anybody can become a refugee at any time,” he said.

His wife and four children live in Nairobi.

Dr Atar runs a 120-bed hospital that has no blood bank, has limited anaesthesia, the only x-ray machine is broken, the surgical theatre is lit by a single light, and electricity is provided by generators that often break down.

He operates with the help of three other doctors — two Kenyans and a Ugandan, a few midwives and administration staff mainly from Kenya and Uganda. Despite all the challenges, the hospital carries out an average of 58 operations in a week.

The maternity ward has 30 beds, too few for the number of people it caters for, who include the local community in Maban and those who come from as far away as Malakal, Reng and Malut in central South Sudan.

Challenges

“Sometimes we are forced to accommodate two pregnant women in one bed, but it becomes difficult if one mother delivers more than one child. We hope this award will help us expand the maternity ward as our first priority,” said Dr Atar.

When Dr Atar arrived in Kurmuk — before the partition of Sudan — it was a restricted area where the Khartoum government did not allow operations by humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organisation.

The region was outside the ambit of Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), an agency of the UN which was operating from Lokichoggio in northern Kenya, attending to those affected by the raging civil war between the North and the South.

However, Dr Atar was determined to come to the aid of the people in that region and reached out to an official of Médecins Sans Frontières he only recalls as Fabrice, who provided him with an autoclave.

He later received support from some British Members of Parliament who supplied him with medicine to start off his operations in Kurmuk.

"From 1997 to 2005, we depended entirely on good Samaritans; at that time, we were attending to various armed groups irrespective of their affiliation, tribe or religion. It was our duty to give medical services to those who needed them. But from 2005, after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, things started improving and we started receiving equipment from the government in Juba and managed to put the hospital in chapel,” said Dr Atar.

But war broke out again in Blue Nile and Dr Atar and his refugee patients crossed the border southwards to Bunj County. The fighting in Blue Nile, which is still going on to date, is between the Khartoum government forces and local communities who are fighting alongside and are sympathetic to the SPLA.

Dr Evan Atar Adaha performing surgery

A file photo taken on October 10, 2011 of Dr Evan Atar Adaha performing surgery at a makeshift hospital in Kurmuk region of the Blue Nile state. PHOTO | AFP

After South Sudan's Independence in 2011 and the partition of the country, these communities found themselves in Sudan where they are not trusted by the Khartoum government because of their sympathy for pro-South Sudan militia fighting on the side of anti-government rebels. The communities say Blue Nile people were not given a choice of which side of the two Sudans they wanted to belong to.

A helping hand

Dr Atar recalls how on arrival in Maban in November 21, 2011 after a month-longwalk, he immediately went to see the area commissioner, who took him to a dilapidated primary healthcare centre. But as they were still inspecting the facility, the residents who had heard about his arrival in the area brought in a young man who had been shot and was in critical condition.

“There was no way we were going to let the patient die despite the lack of equipment and medicine. The bullet was lodged in his intestines and we were not sure whether the few pieces of equipment we had brought with us were sterilised. However, with the help of the only nurse from Kenya, we took a broken door and turned it into an operating table,” he said.

They opened the young man's abdomen, cut out the damaged section of the intestine and carried out an anastomosis— the process of stitching back an organ after it has been severed. The patient survived and he is currently working at the Maban Hospital where he is in charge of receiving patients at the gate and controlling the queues of patients.

Peace is the solution

Dr Atar says that the challenges facing his hospital will only ease up if peace comes to South Sudan, enabling more young people to go back to school and study medicine; refugees to go back home and the displaced to go back to their homes and more doctors from the region to work in South Sudan.

He is, however, grateful that despite Upper Nile being the theatre of continuous fighting between the government forces of President Salva Kiir and those of Dr Riek Machar, the hospital has not been attacked by armed militias.

“We have made the rule that nobody should come to the hospital with arms or army uniforms. If they come to the hospital with arms, we don’t treat them because we don’t want the political hatred brought into the facility,” said Dr Atar.