Disease, death won’t keep doctor away from Darfur

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Dr. Stephen Sokol has held Darfur children as they starved to death.

LEWISTON – Dr. Stephen Sokol says he can’t explain what keeps him going back to Africa, where he has seen such unspeakable horror and death that he can barely talk about it without crying. Or getting angry. Or both.

“It’s nothing I can really explain,” Sokol said Sunday following a two-hour rally to protest the ongoing genocide in Darfur, an area western Sudan where Sokol has practiced internal medicine for the past year.

“But I think part of it is that it makes no sense being a physician where there is an almost obscene excess of equipment and medicine,” said Sokol, who works for the International Rescue Committee, founded in 1933 to help save Jews from Hitler.

“I feel strongly physicians need to be where people are sick and desperate,” he said.

At times on Sunday, Sokol’s voice would trail off while talking about the children who have died in his arms from starvation in the dusty, barren plains of Darfur, where government-backed Arab Muslim militias have slaughtered an estimated 300,000 African Muslims since early 2003 and forced another two million to flee as refugees to nearby Chad and other safer grounds.

Sokol came to the Lewiston rally with another 150 people, but he told the crowd he is not optimistic that the United States, European Union or United Nations will take stronger action to end the holocaust.

In fact, Sokol noted, the United States and United Nations have slashed funding for food and shelter for Darfur victims, forcing the closure of clinics and robbing innocent families of hope.

Sokol lamented the American money being funneled into Iraq while an estimated 500 villagers are killed every day in Darfur and thousands more slowly starve to death.

“It’s a question of what our government is going to do,” Sokol told the crowd. “Are we going to sustain life or kill people? You have a chance to force this government to change its priorities.”

Sokol practiced at Central Maine Medical Center and St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center from 1972 to 1988. He began going to Africa part-time when his two kids were in college and then full-time over the past four years.

He lives in Lewiston with his wife, Gerda Neu-Sokol, to whom he would write long e-mail letters every night from his tiny thatched-roof hut in Darfur.

The biggest killers in Darfur are the government-backed militias known as Janjaweed – and respiratory diseases that claim many lives, especially the young and the old. Hepatitis, starvation, dehydration and intestinal and bone infections also kill many, Sokol said.

Sokol said the government helicopters often start an assault, followed by the Janjaweed. When the government runs out of bombs, it drops car chassis on the villages, the doctor said.

Children are thrown into fires alive. Sokol has treated some of the littlest victims. His voice is soft as he asks, “You wonder who the lucky ones are. Is the one that got out or the one that died?”

Sokol has spent much of his time in Darfur helping to assess the worst needs and get clinics started. He also has helped train some of the staff who run two International Rescue Committee camps. Some days, the clinics see 2,000 patients.

Sokol will return to Darfur in the fall.

“It’s just a thing I have to do,” he said. “I can’t explain it.”

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