Heal­ing touch brought to val­leys of death

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Paul Cleary is a jour­nal­ist at The Aus­tralian and the au­thor of four books. Paul Cleary

The fic­tional ap­proach of­ten works best when deal­ing with truly grue­some events. Mas­sacres and other bru­tal­ity can be eas­ier on the reader when the nar­ra­tive is con­structed with fic­tional place names and char­ac­ters.

Ti­mothy Mo’s 1991 novel The Re­dun­dancy of Courage is a su­perb ex­am­ple of this ap­proach. Mo pow­er­fully and ac­cu­rately por­trays the hor­ror of In­done­sia’s bloody in­va­sion and sub­ju­ga­tion of East Ti­mor in a fic­tional half-is­land place called Danu.

Doc­tor-au­thor Mo­hamed Khadra, who is pro­fes­sor of surgery at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney, has fol­lowed suit in a new book about front-line medi­cos in some of the most trou­bled places in the world: Rwanda, post-tsunami Aceh, Ti­mor and the Mid­dle East.

Hon­our, Duty, Courage is the re­sult of in­ter­views with more than two dozen of these pro­fes­sion­als, most of them army re­servists. Khadra has taken their sto­ries and con­structed a nar­ra­tive based on two best mates, sur­geon Jack Fos- ter and anaes­thetist Tom McNeal, friends since pri­mary school who went on to study medicine to­gether. At home, the two spend long days op­er­at­ing on peo­ple whose bod­ies are fall­ing apart af­ter a life­time of bad habits.

Af­ter about a year in the re­serves, the two are called up at short no­tice and soon find them­selves aboard a C-130 Her­cules fly­ing into the front line of a civil war in fic­tional Equa­to­ria. The book’s tempo picks up as Khadra de­scribes the lum­ber­ing plane’s ap­proach to an air­field sur­rounded by rebels. It makes a steep de­scent, then jerks up­wards as the run­way ap­proaches, be­fore dis­gorg­ing its cargo and pas­sen­gers in just two min­utes.

From this mo­ment, it’s game on for these doc­tors and their sup­port staff as they deal with a steady stream of se­ri­ously wounded civil­ians and for­eign peace­keep­ers. The makeshift surgery be­comes a tread­mill of round-the-clock and of­ten bizarre oper­a­tions.

But this hos­pi­tal is no en­clave: the medi­cos mix closely with the com­mu­nity be­cause some of the nurses are lo­cals. Foster and McNeil go into the field and wit­ness mas­sacre sites. They work with Agnes, a lo­cal nurse who ad­mits to hav­ing killed both her par­ents to spare them from be­ing hacked to death by the rebels.

Pa­tients are brought to the hos­pi­tal with barely imag­in­able in­juries. One woman is dumped at the gate, im­paled by a large wooden beam. A Ger­man nun is brought in with a mine sewn into her ab­domen; the two doc­tors keep her alive while a bomb dis­posal ex­pert re­moves the mine.

The mu­ti­la­tion of women and girls is a stan­dard tac­tic of the rebels, with hor­rific con­se­quences. The two weary doc­tors are forced to make split-sec­ond de­ci­sions about who lives and who dies. One such de­ci­sion comes back to haunt McNeal. They also op­er­ate on rebel fight­ers, even though they soon re­alise that these pa­tients will later face a quick trial fol­lowed by ex­e­cu­tion by gov­ern­ment forces.

At times the in­ten­sity of this book over­whelms. Read­ers might be left guess­ing as to how much of this book is fic­tional, although a close read­ing of the au­thor’s note in­di­cates it’s all based on real ex­pe­ri­ences.

It’s clear Khadra’s pur­pose is pay homage to the ef­forts of peo­ple who vol­un­teer to walk into val­leys of death and de­liver des­per­ately needed med­i­cal care.

As he makes clear at the out­set, these medi­cos rep­re­sent “the true mean­ing” of their pro­fes­sion. He is scathing of the “pre­tenders and the hyp­ocrites” who are mainly con­cerned with mak­ing money. Khadra says he found the ex­pe­ri­ence of in­ter­view­ing these peo­ple truly in­spi­ra­tional and it rein­vig­o­rated his com­mit­ment to the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion.

“Their sto­ries, their amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ences and their sense of duty rein­vig­o­rated my op­ti­mism and gave me another thirty years of life in this pro­fes­sion,” he writes.

While this book is a great work of fic­tion, Khadra has touched on a big sub­ject that is cry­ing out for non­fic­tion treat­ment. Aus­tralians should know more about these brave peo­ple and the sac­ri­fices they and their fam­i­lies make.

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