A shortage of trained health workers and a lack of transport into the main towns has contributed to South Sudan having the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Dr. Martha Martins wanted to do something for women and healthcare. Credit: IRIN/Elizabeth Deacon
On World Humanitarian Day, we remember our colleagues who have been killed while working to help others. In 2011, 308 humanitarian workers were killed, injured or kidnapped. Most of them were local staff, and most of them were targeted because of their work.
This year, we are marking World Humanitarian Day by celebrating the most basic principle of humanitarian work: People Helping People. Join your voice with Beyoncé and hundreds of millions of people around the world by pledging to help someone on 19th August at http://whd-iwashere.org/.
For inspiration, and to remind everyone of the extraordinary things ordinary people are capable of doing, we asked professional aid workers to tell us a story about someone who inspired them in a crisis.
I worked in Sudan for a long time for the UN and for NGOs, but then decided to go back and make a film about people in the North and the South coping with the prospect of Southern independence.
I had heard about the Cuban Jubans, as they called them, and wanted to film them while I was in Juba, the new Southern capital. They were a group of 500 kids sent to Cuba by rebel leader John Garang in 1983 to be educated so they would be able to come back and help rebuild the country when independence came. The war was still fighting when the Soviet Union collapsed. The kids became refugees again and were taken in by Canada. When the peace agreement was finally signed in 2005 between the North and the South, a group of them went to the Canadian government and said: “We want to go back and fulfil Garang’s vision.”
Of those who went back, only one was a woman, which intrigued me. So I tracked her down. Girls and war: you never hear about it. You always hear about the child soldiers and they are always boys. Her name is Dr. Martha Martins, and when I met her I was so impressed. She’s really tall and imposing, and she’s pretty tough. She was like: “What are you doing here?”
But we got talking. She was so eloquent about her experience and her vision for South Sudan. She had fled to Eritrea then Ethiopia with her family when she was 10, and ended up in a camp where she went to school and was picked out by Garang’s team. Can you imagine arriving in Cuba on your own aged 12, without your family? Every day she would pack her bags and tell her teachers she was going back.
She’s a doctor now, and when she came back she went to her home town of Malakal, was reunited with her mother and set up a clinic in Juba. She was so appalled by what she found that she decided to run as an MP during the election because she wanted to do something for women and health care. She won her seat, and now she’s chair of the health and HIV/AIDS committee in parliament.
What I found really amazing about her and her colleagues is they didn’t have to come back to South Sudan. They could have stayed in Canada and had a very decent life – they were all citizens. But she really believed she should go back and help her people. She had survived the war and she felt she owed a debt for that. She understands what people have gone through, she speaks the language and she’s trained. And she’s so strong! And it’s amazing to see how she has taken her survival and turned that into strength.
I remember when I interviewed her. I said: “You’ve seen so many horrors in your life, how do you cope?” And she said: “You never do. You just have to go on and not think about it, because if you do it’s just too terrible. You have to keep going.”
Reporting by Alexandra Sicotte Levesque