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What compassion really looks like

Try 20–plus years of dedication. Try compassion surpassing all norms of safety and possibility. Try helping 200,000 people including 144,000 refugees without a sou (a penny).

Evan Atar Adaha is a doctor surgeon. In a land caught between political strife and racial genocide, this man has been steadfastly treating all comers, regardless of color, creed, race, tribe, or religion. Evan is now in Maban County in South Sudan. Yes, South Sudan, the same country you hear about on the news where killings are commonplace in the five–year Civil War there and across the border in Sudan. South Sudan only gained independence in 2011.

In the tiny village of Bunj, thousands arrive carrying the wounded, the sick, and the needy. Most are fleeing from the Blue Nile State up north where genocide is a daily occurrence. Evan runs a hospital in Bunj... well, hospital may be a bit of an overstatement. 

Most of the hospital consists of tents, some patched, some perishing under the near-equatorial sun and monsoon rains.  He has two X-ray machines, powered by generators, but one is broken. The only light is in the surgical operating room, when the current can be kept running. There is a shortage of fuel and the old machines constantly break down. As for hospital wards… well, wards may be a misnomer as most of the beds are outside in the open air.

Dr. Evan Atar Adaha is the only, repeat only, doctor surgeon and his hospital is the only surgical clinic or hospital in the whole of the Upper Nile region. How big is that area? It’s 30,028 square miles, or larger than Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

Evan is getting a top award from the UN this week. The award is called the Nansen Refugee Award. “Dr. Atar’s work through decades of civil war and conflict is a shining example of profound humanity and selflessness,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.  “Through his tireless efforts, thousands of lives have been saved, and countless men, women and children provided with a new chance to rebuild a future.”

In 2011, Evan packed up his hospital fleeing to South Sudan with his staff and as much equipment as he could transport. Most of it was on foot, hundreds of miles, pulling carts with equipment. That journey that took a month.  Arriving in Bunj, he set up his first surgical theatre in an abandoned local health center, stacking tables to create a raised operating table. 

Since that first day, Evan has worked tirelessly to find money, somewhere, yet always continued training young people to become nurses and midwives. “We treat everyone here regardless of who they are — refugee, internally displaced, host community,” says Evan. 

“The one rule we have is that no weapons are allowed in the hospital. If you bring a weapon, then we will not treat you. Sometimes it is difficult, but most people now agree ...  I am most happy when I realize that the work that I have done has saved somebody from suffering or has saved a life ... It’s only when you are face-to-face with people who have left everything and are sick with malaria, or are malnourished, or have a bullet wound that you realize how desperate the need for help is.”

The prize money he’s getting is already allocated for hospital equipment ... he asked the UN not to write a check but see if member states could donate what he needs. He gave a list that is reported to be 20 pages long. A South African rubber glove company is shipping supplies. A British company is sending IV bags and related supplies. A German pharma company is sending drugs and supplies.  So far, the United States has offered no comment, aid, or support.

Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.