Doctors' massacre highlights medical crisis in Somalia

Public anger spills over into protests over suicide bombing

Daniel Howden,Africa Correspondent
Tuesday 08 December 2009 01:00

Dr Maslah was still writing a message of congratulations to his best friend when news reached him of the bombing. The young surgeon was starting another gruelling shift at Galkayo hospital and was happy that a few hundred miles south in Mogadishu his friends at medical school were celebrating their graduation. A year earlier he had been the one collecting his degree as one of the first class of university graduates in Somalia since 1991. He was looking forward to getting some reinforcements.

The graduation was a welcome bright spot in a city consumed by internecine war and government ministers packed into the Shamo Hotel, along with families, lecturers and students.

But this year's class would not be so fortunate. The doctor's friend, with whom he'd studied at Benadir University for six years, was ripped apart by a massive blast along with half his class and three ministers.

A young man had sneaked into the celebration disguised in women's clothing and a veil. He made his way to the front and triggered the explosive vest he was wearing.

A witness describes what happened next. "Suddenly, the hall shook," he said. "Dozens of people were on the ground under a huge cloud of smoke. The ceremony hall became very dark, and seemed like a slaughterhouse, for the blood flowing on the ground. A young man rushed to pick up his older brother, who had graduated that day, but he was already dead. The young man cried and cried."

In a country seemingly inured to the atrocities of war, the slaughter of a class of young doctors has been greeted with unprecedented anger. Yesterday, hundreds of Somalis marched from the bomb site to Benadir University in the first ever public demonstration against the Islamist militia Al-Shabaab.

No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, and Al-Shabaab has denied it.

For Dr Maslah there is more grief than anger. "I knew most of them ... I'm very sorry," he said, repeating the phrase four times. The lost class of 2009 could not be more sorely needed. Dr Maslah, based in Galkayo, north of the capital, is one of only a dozen surgeons in the entire country. His hospital has seen 34,000 patients in the past year. He himself performs an average of 40 operations a month.

Merely resolving to stay in the country takes uncommon courage. "They have a passion for their people," says Karin Fischer Liddle from Doctors Without Borders (MSF). "They're extremely brave to have taken the decision to stay in Somalia."

Dr Maslah thought of leaving the country but says his brother convinced him to stay. The young surgeon explains that he often feared for his life just getting to school. Some patients cannot be saved as there are no bloodbanks and people often travel for days just to reach a hospital. Recently the patients that arrive are often starving. The hospital is receiving more malnourished patients than ever before, according to MSF. Its feeding centre is packed with 1,300 people.

"I am not considering fleeing the country," Dr Maslah says despite his grief. "Sometimes I feel fear but I find reasons to stay. I'm in the place where I can be of most use."

Somalia: An escalating tragedy


The number of patients seen by Galkayo hospital in the past year.


The number of hungry people crammed into the hospital's feeding centre, many having arrived in a state of starvation

3.6 million

The number of Somalis in need of aid – nearly half the population


Approximate size of exodus of professionals from Somalia in the past year

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