Changing faces of Agriculture
Botany prof has emotional ties to orchids
Lost lives revive his soul
Lost lives revive his soul
The days were hellishly hot and long on the African plain. So hot, it seemed, Satan himself must timeshare just down the dusty road from the giant Kalma refugee camp in Sudan.
A year ago, this was a village of 25,000 people. Today, as a result of a civil war that has raged in the Darfur region of Sudan since 2003, the camp contains an estimated 125,000 displaced Sudanese people. They live in grass huts and tents, with little food and even less hope. Kalma is one of a hundred refugee camps that dot Sudan and Chad, housing as many as 2 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
In eight months as an emergency water and sanitation engineer with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), Barry Gutwein, BS ’80, MS ’85, has seen death from a front row seat. The Francesville, Ind., native thought that after a time, he would become immune to death’s emotional torture.
He has witnessed death from malnutrition, diseases and violence, affecting young and old alike. And when a child dies, those memories bound up unchecked from the darkness of his soul, punching at his heart like a boxer working the speed bag.
“The baby had tetanus,” Gutwein wrote in his journal.“I was with a nurse this time, who contacted Mesfin (our surgeon) for advice. He said the case was hopeless and should not be sent to the hospital. I watched the baby die. How does one describe that? The strips of light coming through the bamboo walls? The dazed, exhausted and resigned look on the mother’s face? The thin pale hand of the German nurse resting on the baby’s chest, feeling the heartbeat?
“Maybe the question is, why do I feel compelled to describe this, to hold on to that moment? This is something the medical staff experience routinely. Why must it remain vivid to me?
“I had thought that when I came to the Sudan, I might peer into the abyss, but if I have, what I’ve seen is quite unexpected.”
Darkness brought solace
At the end of a day so filled with despair, Gutwein would stare instead into the abyss of gathering darkness. The oppression of daylight and insects was finally retreating. Now, he would reflect on all that had happened during that day.
Sometimes staring up into the endlessness of space was all Gutwein could muster after a day spent peering down into the dark, relentless face of death. Gutwein and his MSF teammates would watch tiny spots of reflected light slip across the night sky like lightning bugs that had finally learned the economy of flying a straight line.
“They were satellites,” Gutwein says. “We’d look up at them and wave as they would travel across the sky, thinking they were taking our picture. It was kind of a joke, but I think it took our minds off of what we were doing, at least for a little while.”
Adventure began with tests
MSF has been bringing relief to places where there is none since 1971, and won a Nobel Prize in 1999. Gutwein first heard about MSF while working on his PhD (Colorado State) in Eritria and Ethiopia in 1990. Two years ago, he sent his application to the organization’s New York office. (About 10 percent of MSF’s workers come from the U.S.)
He was called in for an exhaustive interview in May 2004. MSF needed to gauge his ability to get along with a team of 15 similarly motivated people from around the globe. “They need to find out if you can work with diverse people in extreme conditions without driving yourself, or others, crazy,” Gutwein explains.
He passed all of MSF’s tests. Feeling like a human pincushion after $1,500 worth of vaccinations for everything from hepatitis A to yellow fever, Gutwein shoved 44 pounds of his worldly possessions (a travel limit imposed by MSF) into a duffel and jetted off to New York to begin an adventure he had been preparing for all his life.
After a full day of briefings, Gutwein headed to Amsterdam for two more days of training. Then it was on to a forest in Bonn, Germany, for 10 days of field training and team-building with a German doctor, French nurses and midwifes, and an English administrator.
The only thing they shared in common with this Hoosier farmer was an uncertainty about the future and a desire to make the world just a little bit better than it was the day before.
Africa was still just a big, mysterious, unreachable spot on the map.
Finally ... Sudan
He was finally off to Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city, for two days of training in January 2005. But all the training, briefings and team-building sessions never prepared him for what he saw with his eyes, heard with his ears, smelled with his nose, and felt tearing at his gut.
During the dry season, temperatures top 120 degrees in Sudan. Insufferable insects are all that stir the putrid air. The senses are overwhelmed.
MSF aid stations are classified as phase one (“where we just throw resources — food, water, medical treatment — at people”) or phase two (“we move away from emergency status and clean up the mess we created during phase one and provide long-term support”).
Everyone at the Kalma camp is a victim of the civil war, even the MSF workers.
Here there are no roads, but plenty of heat, dust and death. Each day, the focus of everyone at the camp is to survive one more night. Each sunrise is a solitary victory. This is a phase one facility if ever there was one. MSF is on the front lines of life’s toe-to-toe struggle with death.
“We do the best we can,” Gutwein was told by MSF personnel.
“They took me on a 10-day trip and showed me the base, two overnight facilities and three clinics MSF operates in West Dafur,” Gutwein says. “A lot of people take one look and either throw up or get right back on the plane.”
Gutwein did neither. At least not right away.
“That’s the way MSF works,” Gutwein explains. “They move in very quickly in emergency situations. Once in, they respond to emergency needs, then they will hand over operations to other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and move on to areas where needs are unmet.”
|© 2006 Purdue Agriculture|