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November 29, 2007

Doctor From Darfur Champions Human Rights

Mohammed Ahmed Abdallah has seen the unspeakable—disfiguring burns, sexual violence against adolescent girls, loss of limbs.

Instead of turning away or remaining silent, the Sudanese physician provides medical care to survivors of torture in Darfur. He listens to their stories of loss, and speaks for victims who have no voice.

Ahmed is the medical director of the Amel Center for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture in Sudan, a comprehensive treatment and service program of medical care, rehabilitation, counseling and legal assistance. Since joining the Amel Center in 2004, Ahmed has assembled a large network of Sudanese doctors and health professionals who volunteer their services to survivors of the torture and violence that has crippled the Darfur region.  

“I had no choice,” said Ahmed, who spoke at the School earlier this month about his decision three years ago to commit himself to treating victims of violence in Darfur. He traveled to the United States with the Salvation Group, 27 tribal leaders from Darfur working with local communities, the Sudanese government and the international leaders toward peace in the region.

On his trip, Ahmed, a member of the Fur tribe, was honored with the 2007 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for his efforts to fight torture and other human rights abuses in his native country. The Darfur region in western Sudan erupted in violence in February 2003 after the rebellion of several armed groups from the area's African tribes. In response, government-backed militias embarked on a campaign of destruction and violence against the rebels and civilians. According to the U.S. State Department, the conflict has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people and displaced more than 2 million.

“We had to find a mechanism for how to treat these people, those who have been attacked, their villages destroyed, cottages burned and property taken,” Ahmed said. “How can these people find any money for medical treatment? That pushed us to think, ‘What shall we do?’”

When the Amel Center began offering services, most of its affiliated doctors had been trained in internal medicine. But it soon became clear that many patients required specialized orthopedic, surgical or gynecological/obstetrical care. “We invented this network [of physicians] and the members treat survivors in a very decent way without asking for any money,” Ahmed said. “That dignifies our patient and survivor.”

In addition to providing medical treatment, the Amel Center conducts in-depth interviews with each patient. The information-gathering process is important, Ahmed said, because it allows the survivors to be heard and forms the basis of a detailed record to document human rights abuses. 

Ahmed said that the sexual violence against girls is a “tragic problem” in Darfur. He told the story of a 14-year-old girl who had been held as a sexual slave, and was pregnant when she came to the Amel Center. Initially, she was too traumatized to speak, but Center staff contacted members of the girl’s tribe who urged her to talk to Amel’s physicians and counselors.

Ahmed said he has seen an increase in attacks on civilians and aid workers, according to the monthly reports compiled by the Amel Center. He called on the international community to provide effective protection to civilians in Darfur and assistance in rebuilding the region’s infrastructure.

“There is no single paved road in Darfur, it’s an area of chaos,” he said. “We need to exert the maximum effort to rebuild the villages which have been burned and destroyed completely.”

Although Ahmed witnesses brutality and despair on a daily basis, he holds on to a vision of a healed Sudan. “This must be a country where everybody is a citizen, and through this unity we can do anything,” he said. “There is oil, there is water, animals, there are a lot of products. Everything we need is there, but we need a country where everybody will feel like they belong.” —Jackie Powder