‘You don’t have to be hit by a bullet to be a victim of war’: Reflections of Gino Strada, war surgeon

In most cases encountered by renowned war surgeon Gino Strada, who has worked in some of the most dangerous countries in the world, the victims have died from entirely preventable diseases:

“Most patients are affected by rheumatic heart disease, this is seventy per cent of my job. It’s a disease that risks the future of an entire generation, a disease clearly linked to poverty. Rheumatic fever is the biggest killer in Africa.”

Strada founded Emergency in 1994, an Italian NGO which has so far provided more than 5,200,000 people with high quality medical care, free of charge. It has worked in 16 countries across the globe; building hospitals, clinics and rehabilitation centres for the world’s most vulnerable. His view is simple – to help those in need:

“Today it looks trivial, that care should be of a high standard, open to everyone, and free of charge. This sounds somewhere between revolutionary and utopic. It’s not – it’s the way it should be”

Emergency’s expertise ranges from surgery for landmine victims, to plastic and reconstructive surgery, orthopaedic surgery and cardiac surgery.

The Salam Centre in Khartoum, opened by Emergency in 2007, is the only facility in Africa capable of high-standard cardiac surgery free of charge. It was built in a bid to help the estimated 18 million people in Africa who are affected by rheumatic heart disease and in need of urgent surgery – something which can be prevented by a simple prophylaxis injection.

It was there in 2010 that photographer Giles Duley, who was in conversation with Strada last night, first encountered the cigarette-smoking surgeon-cum-humanitarian while on assignment. He recalled writing a letter to his girlfriend at the time about Strada and his mission:

“He wants to know a child in Africa will get the same treatment as a child in Italy. To him, there should be no difference in how you treat people.”

“In the two or three weeks I was there, I was unable to capture the photo in my mind that made Emergency stand out from the other NGOs I worked with.  How to capture that essence, that philosophy?” Duley said, adding that clinical hospitals do not make good subjects for photographers.

Barely months later, while on assignment in Afghanistan, Duley stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device) which left him a triple amputee.

It was three years later, when Duley returned to Afghanistan to visit one of Emergency’s hospitals, that he was able to take the perfect shot – an image of a lone man, walking in a leafy Kabul courtyard within the premises of the clinic:

“[That photo] is the embodiment of what Emergency stands for. It encapsulates not just a hospital but an oasis of calm. . . . In the chaos of war, emergency hospitals stands testament that your level of care should be the same level of care of someone in Europe.”

Strada, on the other hand, has always had a clear picture of Emergency’s mission in his mind:

“All of us – sooner or later – will be in need of medical and surgical care. As this is a reality, I think it should be free of charge for all of us, of the best quality for all of us. We treat people with a bit of humanity, a bit of compassion, solidarity and professionalism, which is exactly the way people should be treated. That is the best lens to focus on which kind of society we have in front of us.”

The Italian war surgeon was softly spoken and humble – but the massive impact he has made was felt among the audience, with Megan Pietersen tweeting, “Not been around so many people I respect & admire in a long time.”