Egyptian Trauma Surgeon on Somali Front Line Epitomizes UN Humanitarian Role
New York, Aug 17 2011 - Omar Saleh was leading a peaceful and comfortable life as a trauma surgeon and university
lecturer in Egypt when the call came from the United Nations health agency: surgeons urgently needed in war-torn
Somalia. He didn’t have to think twice.
“I should be where I’m needed,” he said today as the UN prepared to mark World Humanitarian Day
on Friday. “And this is where I’m needed. I’m a trauma surgeon. This is a conflict. Trauma is everywhere. I must be
there,” he told the UN News Centre by telephone from Somalia where he operates under the auspices of the UN World Health
Dr. Saleh, 41, married and a father of two, who studied at the universities of Cairo and Ismailiya and at the Royal
College of Surgeons in London, is just one of the tens of thousands of humanitarian workers whose selfless efforts are
being celebrated by the annual Day.
When he was a student he never imagined he would be operating in a crisis-torn country such as Somalia where 20 years of
brutal inter-clan fighting without a functioning central government have killed and wounded scores of thousands, but
since 2007 he has been wielding his potentially life-saving scalpel not only in Mogadishu, the capital, but in other
violence-wracked regions of south and central Somalia, including Baidoa.
It was in Baidoa that he faced one of his worst days. There had been ferocious fighting and bomb explosions and 24
gravely wounded people had been brought in to the ‘hospital,’ a very basic institution far removed from what is usually
understood by the term. Of these, Dr. Saleh and another surgeon he was training managed to save just two.
Over the four years he has been in Somalia, a country where shellings, artillery barrages, shootings, explosions and
suicide bombings are almost a daily, sometimes even hourly, occurrence, Dr. Saleh said he had treated thousands of
trauma cases. Asked how many of these he had saved, he replied simply: “Thousands.”
Nearly all the people he treats are civilians, many of them children, although some of them could be fighters. “The
fighters usually have their own places to go for treatment,” he said. “But we don’t know if some who come to the
hospital are fighters. We don’t ask.”
Every three months, Dr. Saleh returns to Cairo to spend time with his family and restore his energies, ready to return
to the front line of conflict and save as many severely wounded people as he can.
When you watch the news and see or hear that there have been five injured, six or seven injured, or 20 injured, these
are just numbers, Dr. Saleh said in a video interview posted by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian
Affairs (OCHA). But “those five injured or 20 injured, these are not numbers. Those people, they’re a father, they’re a
mother, they’re a child, they’re a brother. I get to know that.”
When he was a student, he was told to be “anything, but not a trauma surgeon. But if I’m not going to stay here, if I’m
not going to do it, who else? Nobody,” he said.
Because hospital facilities are so basic in Somalia “you feel that your hands are tied, particularly when I know that
the cure is simple and easy, but I don’t have it,” he added.
“Being a humanitarian also means that I care about people and I have enough morals and thoughts and ideas and ideals to
follow that and do my best. My worst fear is to go to the grave with my knowledge. I need to make sure that I pass it
before I go, that I’m not taking it with me.
“If I could stop something in the world, it would be war, because I find it a stupid thing. People are dying because of
war. Land? Who’s more precious, the land or the people? The people.”
For more details go to UN News Centre at http://www.un.org/news