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Serving humanity in war-torn Syria: the heroic journey of Dr. Kelkar

M3 India Newsdesk Jan 20, 2019

Dr. Bharat Kelkar takes us on an exhilarating journey as he shares his experience from Syria and then Yemen, as a part of the Medecins Sans Frontiers, or Doctors Without Borders.









The medical profession, although one of many trials, travails, and extremely hard work, is considered to be a key to a prestigious and prosperous life. It is a major reason why the world over, the medical profession is a much sought and respected profession.

However, when I became a doctor and had a flourishing practice, it was never enough for me to be happy, which is probably why I was always interested in working for people beyond those who were coming to my hospital, those who were not as privileged to come to my hospital for treatment or were unable to afford it.I was working for a tribal health program led by an Indian social welfare organisation's (Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram). I always wished to work for people to whom conventional treatment would not reach easily.

In 1999, Medecins Sans Frontiers, or Doctors Without Borders was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize.

I was intrigued by their ability to transcend political, national, linguistic and many other barriers to quickly respond to crises as an organisation prioritising human life above all else. From natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods to political turmoil ranging from Vietnam to Syria, this organisation was doing remarkable work without heeding the combatants’ and victims backgrounds. I decided to apply to be a volunteer in 2012.

And I applied to be a volunteer at Syria and waited...

 After my application, I had a grueling interview to test my motives and my experience. They tested me for my mental fortitude if I would be able to handle the stress which came with the experiences of serving in areas which tested the human will and brought us face to face with untold human suffering. They gave me an idea of the nature of patients I would likely see, including people having suffered mine blasts, ballistic trauma, shrapnel, grenades and many other ghastly injuries. The overall process was indicative that this was an extremely serious job.


Doctors from the MSF camp in Syria had been kidnapped and had only been recently released just before my arrival.

After my application and a wait of two years, I received a call from the MSF India office in early 2014, asking me if I was willing to go to their Ramtha hospital on the Syria-Jordanian border as a volunteer.

I was following the news in Syria and knew that it was a battle which had been raging for years and with severe casualties, and with indiscriminate use of military force and a mix of varying agents including the Syrian government, groups allied with ISIS, Al Qaeda and many others were part of the fighters.

The Ramtha camp

I reached the Ramtha camp after a long jeep ride from Amman. We could see smoke and hear blasts just across the border between Jordan and Syria.On the very first day, my first patients were two boys, five and seven years of age respectively. The five-year-old had lost both his legs and part of his right arm, while the seven-year-old brother was also equally injured. A man who identified them as their father brought them there. However, I realized later that he was not their father but only an acquaintance. Without much ado, I got to work.

For the next month, the routine consisted of many such surgeries, nearly round the clock. Sometimes, a large group of injured people would come in with harrowing injuries.

However, we had the tough duty of prioritising who could be treated. Some patients had to be immediately taken in for surgery, some could wait a while and be treated only for the pain for the time being, while the most unfortunate ones would not be able to make it no matter how well they were treated.

In the limited resources that we had, we had to preserve the dignity of our patients while also making the best use of our resources. It was hard to imagine for me, a well-placed doctor in a safe, democratic, peaceful country to imagine that my life was entirely at the mercy of a bomb or bullet or a landmine, and that there was simply no guarantee that I would live to see another day.

My tryst with Yemen

After my first expedition, it was only a matter of time before I was called for another one, this time in an even more troubled area, in Yemen, where civil war, compounded by air strikes by Saudi Arabia on MSF hospitals had led to widespread global criticism.

Although the Saudis apologised for it later, it was scarcely a relief for someone who was going to be in one of such hospitals soon.

My family too was scared, for the conditions of my stay would probably not be even remotely hospitable as Jordan. I would be in Yemen, not very far from where war was happening. I was not allowed to go out of the hospital campus, not open windows without asking, not go out without safety gear, and had to follow many other restrictions.

The air journey to Yemen itself was long and winding;  first to Geneva to be briefed and get details about the situation and then to Djibouti, a small country in Africa. After a day’s stay, we had to wait until the allotted time of four hours when MSF aircraft could safely fly and land in Yemen without having the fear of being attacked.

In Yemen, I was not away from the war zone, I was posted in it. Gunfire, thunderous explosions, air raids could all be heard from our hospital and rooms. Around the time of my arrival, fighter jets were dropping barrel bombs on targeted areas. On the road to the hospital, we crossed nearly 19 checkposts, where adolescent boys, with some form of tobacco in their mouth and Kalashnikovs on their backs checked our IDs and papers and let us pass…

The duty at the hospital

The hospital duty was equally agonising to witness. Shrapnel wounds, gunshot wounds, tortured patients with drilling machines used to drill their bones, mine victims, we saw some of the worst atrocities done on mankind. For nearly the entire day, barring 2-3 brief and hurried coffee and meal breaks, security briefings and intermittent sleep at night, our team that was stitched together from across the world worked tirelessly to alleviate human suffering at any scale we could.

Families staying in battered homes would all come injured to the hospital, get cured and then leave with a broken heart to the same broken homes if they had survived, or to the severely crowded tin and plastic sheds called refugee camps. These camps had no facilities whatsoever. Food, water, medicines, all were extremely scarce in Yemen. On the contrary, guns were aplenty, for every Yemeni citizen, three guns were present in Yemen at that point of time. Death was freely available while life and dignity were scarce.

The time to leave

Ten days before my departure from Yemen, a horrific bombing had killed 150 people and injured nearly 500, it had also shut down Sana’a airport indefinitely. I had already informed my family about the delay in my arrival and tried to prepare them for it. However, by a stroke of luck, the airport reopened a day before I was to leave. In what would seem a miracle, members of my team had arranged a cake for my send-off. In a small yet heartwarming gathering, we enjoyed a brief respite from our grueling work with cake and some Yemeni coffee. When I left the compound a month later, I was torn...

I wanted to stay and contribute and alleviate all the suffering that I could, but home also beckoned. As my flight took off from the airport, I wondered what gave all the people here the hope and willingness to survive, to fight so hard for survival each day? I had everything I needed and much more, while here I was, in a place where a stray bullet or bomb would end these people’s lives, without any fault of their own.

Some friends had asked me, “Why do you want to take this experience again? Haven’t you gained enough experience?” However, I realized that this was not a mere ‘experience’, it was a chance for me to delve deeper within myself and my motivation to practice medicine as a profession beyond its professional aspects, and most importantly, of getting that unsurpassable contentment of having alleviated human suffering, even if in an infinitesimally small measure.


This article was originally published on 24.05.18


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