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War Surgeon Gino Strada: “Media Not Interested in Human Tragedies” of War

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We speak with Dr. Gino Strada, a war surgeon and the founder of Emergency, a nonprofit, humanitarian organization dedicated to providing assistance to civilian victims of war. [includes rush transcript]

Working in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Cambodia and Rwanda, Emergency enters war zones and provides medical assistance in conflict situations.

In February, the English-language edition of Dr. Strada’s memoir, Green Parrots, was published in the United States, with an introduction by Howard Zinn.

Dr. Strada’s campaign against the manufacture and sale of the green, flying anti-personnel mines helped persuade Italy to abandon the use and manufacture of anti-personnel mines.

  • Dr. Gino Strada, war surgeon and the founder of Emergency, a nonprofit, humanitarian organization dedicated to providing assistance to civilian victims of war. The English-language edition of Dr. his memoir, “Green Parrots” was recently published in the U.S.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, some might say, those who are religious, even those who aren’t, that he’s doing God’s work. We are joined by Dr. Gino Strada. He is a war surgeon and founder of Emergency, a nonprofit humanitarian organization dedicated to providing assistance to civilian victims of war. Working in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Rwanda, Emergency enters war zones and provides medical assistance in conflict situations. In February the English language edition of Dr. Strada’s memoir, Green Parrots, appeared in the United States with an introduction by Howard Zinn. Dr. Strada’s campaign against the manufacture and sale of the green, flying anti-personnel mines helped persuade Italy to abandon the use and manufacture of these mines. Dr. Strada joins us now in our Denver Studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

DR. GINO STRADA: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. So explain what green parrots are.

DR. GINO STRADA: Well, green parrots are small anti-personnel mines. They look more or less like a butterfly, and they have been scattered by the thousands over the Afghan villages during the Soviet occupation. And obviously, no adults or military personnel will pick up these objects. These mines are meant to create an army of mutilated children, and in this respect I consider them as a form of terrorism toward the civilian populations. We have in Afghanistan a lot of children who lost their hands or who lost their eyes because of these land mines, so it has been a big, big tragedy, and it is a big tragedy for the Afghan people.

AMY GOODMAN: Who manufactures them?

DR. GINO STRADA: They were manufactured in Russia. Technically speaking, these are PFM-1 anti-personnel mines, Russian-made.

AMY GOODMAN: And are they all manufactured there?

DR. GINO STRADA: Yeah, definitely. I mean, these land mines were scattered basically during their occupation, and the problem is that they move. They are very small objects. The weight is about less than 100 grams, and therefore even mine clearance is very difficult. So unfortunately this is a tragedy that the Afghan people have to face for the decades to come, to have that country polluted with these kind of terrible weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: The Land Mine Treaty is one that has been very controversial in this country, the President not signing off on it.

DR. GINO STRADA: Yeah, it’s a pity, because, you know, in other countries, in Italy, as well, for instance, the campaign was very successful. And I think that the United States should join. It is not only the United States who did not sign the treaty, by the way. It’s Russia, it’s China, it’s India, it’s Pakistan. Some very big countries. Signing the treaty will not change the situation in humanitarian terms, but it will be a sort of insurance for the future generations, and I think the land mine campaign should be revitalized, basically, because these weapons are really a horror.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the 11th anniversary of the massacre, the genocide in Rwanda. You set up a hospital there?

DR. GINO STRADA: Yeah, we had an operation in Rwanda during the war where we set up the — we reopened basically the surgical hospital in the capital city Kigali and the maternity hospital. The hospitals were destroyed, bombed, abandoned, full of rubbish, and it took us many, many months of work to get them back up and running. After that, we closed our operations in Rwanda at the end of 1994, about roughly six months after the end of hostilities.

AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts on this 11th anniversary, what it meant that it was — that it happened, that the U.N. did not move to prevent it, that the U.S. didn’t invoke the word “genocide” as it was taking place, which would trigger international mechanisms to get involved?

DR. GINO STRADA: Well, you know, my feeling is that no one is really interested about genocides. Genocides are always invoked when there are political agendas behind. And in fact, that was a prime example. I mean, the U.N. did not intervene as they did not intervene in many, many other situations. I mean, I have been working in war zones for 17 years now, and every time that the war goes into an acute phase, the U.N. disappear, and I don’t understand why. Why is that? I mean, they were supposed to be there and to keep peace and stability.

AMY GOODMAN: From Rwanda to Sudan, the U.N. came out with a report saying, well, they won’t call it genocide, but it is a very serious situation.

DR. GINO STRADA: Well, it is. I mean, we are in Darfur and in Khartoum. In Darfur, there is a conflict that is ongoing since 20-25 years, a low-tension conflict. It has exploded three years ago because the political agenda of many had been fueling this conflict. And I will say there is no genocide at all in Darfur. There is a big humanitarian disaster, and the problem is to act toward that humanitarian disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: What has to be done?

DR. GINO STRADA: Well, basically, you know, in Darfur, the population is left without water, without electricity, without medical facilities, without food. And, in fact, most of the people escape for that reason. Now there are about two million people living in slums outside Khartoum. Some of them came because of the war with the south. But a good amount of these people arrive from the north, escaping from the area north of Darfur and west of Darfur states.

AMY GOODMAN: When you come to this country, you see very little coverage of areas, countries like Sudan. What are your thoughts about that?

DR. GINO STRADA: Well, my thought is always the same, that it looks like media are not very much interested in human tragedies. They’re interested only when there are plans. All of this business of genocide in Sudan, for instance, I think has come up as an idea to sort of pave the ground for a possible military intervention. And next door there is the Federal Republic — Democratic Republic of Congo, where four million people have died because of the conflict, and no one has ever thought about mentioning genocide. So I think that, you know, we should try to get media attention to the real problems. Humanitarian problems cannot be, you know, submitted to politics basically, and this is what happens regularly. A country comes to the light of the media when there are some political agendas from very powerful nations behind them. Think about Afghanistan. Who speaks about Afghanistan now?

AMY GOODMAN: What should we understand about Afghanistan?

DR. GINO STRADA: Well, that the situation is still a tragic situation, that 10,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, that there was no liberation or no democracy in Afghanistan. The Afghan population still lives in the same misery, in the same disasters. Kabul is not Afghanistan. Outside of Kabul you have the same situation it was five years ago, basically.

AMY GOODMAN: What are people suffering from?

DR. GINO STRADA: People are suffering from the fact, you know, that country is still now — I mean, it is a country where 70% of the population has never seen a doctor or a nurse in their lives. It is a country where there is no safe water. It is a country where there is malnutrition. But on top of it, it is a country that, after this last aggression of 2001, 2002, has seen problems it never has experienced before: prostitution, AIDS. AIDS was an unknown phenomenon, as prostitution was, in Afghanistan. And now in Kabul you have prostitutes, and health authorities start to be concerned with a possible spread of H.I.V. in the country, which would be a tremendous tragedy in a country without medical infrastructure or without possibility to look after patients.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Dr. Gino Strada, who has written his memoir, Green Parrots: A War Surgeon’s Diary, has set up hospitals throughout the world. Iraq today.

DR. GINO STRADA: Well, in Iraq, you know, we started to work in 1995. We have two surgical centers, one rehabilitation centers and 22 clinics. Our third hospital is under construction in the holy city of Karbala. But the problem is at the moment the security there. Karbala occasionally becomes a battlefield, and therefore the daily workers didn’t feel confident to continue working. I hope I can go back to Iraq soon and see that project can continue, because that hospital is very much needed by the population. I mean, Iraq is a devastated country, first by the first Gulf War, then by the sanctions, and then by this new aggression. So there is a lot, I think, to be done.

AMY GOODMAN: We also hear very little about this in the United States, what actually is the picture on the ground in Iraq?

DR. GINO STRADA: Well, even in Europe I will say, I mean, there has been very, very few reports. The massacre of Fallujah, for instance, was unbelievable, and very little has been documented, and very little has been said. I think that, you know, now unfortunately most media are just linked to the militaries, and there’s the problem. The embedded journalist for sure will not report what they see on the ground. They will report only what they are told to explain to the public. And this doesn’t include civilian casualties. I mean the 100,000 civilian Iraqis who have been killed in this past two years is something that deserves much more media attention worldwide, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you get into war medicine?

DR. GINO STRADA: Well, by chance, you know. I wanted to see how the job of a surgeon would look like in a third world country, and I ended up in a hospital on the Pakistani-Afghani border. That was back in 1987, 1988. And you see that, you know, 90% of the victims are civilians, one third of them are children. No medical facilities available. So it was easy to say, okay, something can be done, and let’s put together an organization to help these victims. And in fact, I’m very happy, in a way, that Emergency has grown up big, in the size that we were able in these ten years to look after 1.4 million victims of war, which is still a drop in the bucket compared to the magnitude of the tragedy, but it’s been good.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Gino Strada, for joining us. Dr. Gino Strada, a war surgeon, founder of Emergency, a nonprofit humanitarian organization dedicated to assisting civilian victims of war. Gino Strada’s book is called Green Parrots: A War Surgeon’s Diary.

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