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Kenya/Sudan: "Various conflict zones have benefited from Lopiding…"

28-06-2006 Interview

ICRC delegate-general for Africa, Christoph Harnisch, talks about the achievements and difficulties of the Lopiding hospital for Sudanese war-wounded – once the ICRC's biggest field surgical unit. The facility has now been handed over to the Kenyan authorities.

 What do 19 years of Lopiding hospital mean for the ICRC?

One meaning is obviously the suffering of the southern Sudanese that our staff in Lopiding witnessed during 19 years. Another is that the ICRC did what it had to do: care for the war-wounded – and in an unusual setting: unusual because they were coming from another country.

In this sense we helped make Lokichokio known as a humanitarian town. Also, I think the training factor should not be underestimated: various conflict situations around the world have benefited from our experience with war-wounded in Lopiding. I’d say the care of war-wounded worldwide has improved because of the lessons we have learned in Lopiding.

 Do you have any special memory of Lopiding?  

Well, at one point, we suddenly had 70 to 80 people who were4 evacuated from southern Sudan and arrived at the hospital; we had to set up makeshift installations to care for them all. This sort of thing happened several times, reflecting the volatile situation in southern Sudan.

We had other occasions when patients were not always happy with the treatment they received; over time, their expectations grew. These frustrations should be seen in the light of the enormous suffering they had to endure before even getting to the hospital.

Some of them had spent weeks waiting to be evacuated; because of this, their wounds had become infected and complications set in, meaning multiple operations for many of them.

One of th e things we tried to do was to shorten the time spent between the injury and the treatment in Lopiding. However, many of the difficulties, directly linked to working in a war zone – authorizations, access, and so on – were sadly beyond our powers to resolve completely.

 Why was it not possible to treat patients in southern Sudan?  

Nineteen years ago, southern Sudan had extremely weak medical structures – when they existed at all. The reason we set up this hospital in Lopiding was, first of all, because the fighting was very near the border between Kenya and Sudan. Secondly, there was already a medical facility in Lokichokio run by AMREF, a Kenyan organization, which we used as a base to develop the whole hospital.

 Would the ICRC carry out a cross-border operation in a similar setting elsewhere?  

Cross-border is a possibility that should not be discarded, but we must recognize that this operation made our relationship with different authorities in the south – the government, the SPLM or others – more difficult, because it raised suspicions about where these people were being sent and when they would be back.

Essentially, the suspicion was that the ICRC was the medical service of just one party to the conflict. If such a situation happened again, we would think twice about it; but the most important factor would be the needs of the war-wounded and how best to treat them.

 How do you see the future of health services here?  

We hope that by handing over this hospital to the Kenyan authorities and by trying to continue our work in southern Sudan, we will contribute to a new lease of life for medical services in the region, which remain very weak. The ICRC, the international community and other organizations still have a big role to play.

 Lopiding hospital 1987-2006:  
  - facts & figures