‘I go home, and I cry’

0

LEWISTON – In the desert camps of Darfur, Dr. Stephen Sokol has bandaged the burns of children tossed alive onto fires.

“I’ve seen kids with burns all over their bodies,” said Sokol, who spent a year in the Sudanese region with the International Rescue Committee.

He treated refugees who had been beaten and raped as they sought fuel to cook the bland grains and beans given to them by charities. And at 69, the thin, gray-haired doctor who has helped people all over the world is planning to return to the Sudan this summer.

“Things in Darfur are not getting better,” Sokol told a Great Falls Forum audience Thursday at the Lewiston Public Library. “They are getting worse in spite of what our government is saying. My gut feeling is that the Sudanese government wants everyone in Darfur dead.”

As in the past, he plans to work for three months before taking two weeks off. The breaks help him cope with a blistering emotional toll.

“I go home, and I cry,” Sokol said.

Despite witnessing horrors in places such as Guatemala, Haiti, Kenya and Sierra Leone, Sokol said he makes little attempt to understand barbarity such as the burned children.

“I think anybody who kills a child loses their humanity forever,” he said. “I don’t even want to understand it because it is beyond comprehension.”

Sokol worked as a general physician in both Lewiston hospitals, at Togus and in Portland before devoting his career to international aid work.

During the Kosovo war, he trained Chechen doctors in Stavropol, Russia. He has worked for the International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. Most recently, he work in a Burmese refugee camp in Thailand.

And he has watched a lot of people die.

During his hourlong presentation Thursday, he talked about his time in Sierre Leone, where almost every day a child died from malaria or some other illness.

When the deaths stopped for a week or so, he celebrated quietly.

“The next day, God rewarded me,” he said. “We lost three children.”

The International Rescue Committee led him to Darfur in the middle of 2004.

The people were under attack.

The conflict began in February 2003 when black Sudanese rebels attacked government property, accusing the government of neglecting Darfur in favor of the Arab population in Sudan.

The government responded by arming a nomadic Arab militia, known as Janjaweed, to wage a campaign of violence against non-Arab black villagers.

In what U.S. officials have classified as genocide, tens of thousands of people have been killed, raped and driven from their homes to desolate and growing refugee camps across the region.

Sokol figured that iof the 18 months he was in Darfur, he spent 12 of them in the camps before ending his stint last February.

At one, in the city of Kalma, an estimated 90,000 to 150,000 people had gathered in handmade huts. Sanitation was deplorable. Toilets were holes in the ground with a plastic sheet. A shower consisted of a bucket with a plastic sheet.

The biggest problems were illnesses such as pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria.

There were other problems, though. People hid weapons, and the Sudanese government sometimes grew angry.

Once, he and his staff were held at gunpoint. Trucks with .50-caliber guns surrounded them as they searched for someone.

Sokol could do nothing about the guns.

But he could help people. That’s why he plans to return to the region.

“They are a lovely people,” he said. “A very lovely people.”

Advertisement
SHARE