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Doctors in war zones

Global response 2010, a conference on violent conflict and health, held its closing session today at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The first of its kind, the conference gathered experts from fields relating to healthcare and humanitarian efforts in warzones, as well as eyewitnesses from Rwanda, Serbia, Sudan and Gaza

At the closing session of Global Response 2010 – Violent Conflict and Health, at the Danish Foreign Ministry, conference participants appeared to be satisfied with both content and the form of the first major international conferences on violent conflict and health.

The outcomes of the four day conference, arranged by Global Doctors in cooperation with the University of Copenhagen, are a list of concrete recommendations, a number of future academic papers and, perhaps most importantly, a strenghened network of preofessionals and researchers involved in humanitarian care in warzones.


»I would describe the conference as innovative. It has been an unusual process, less structured than usual and with more open discussion« says Canadian Paul Spiegel, Chief of the Public Health and HIV Section at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva, in an interview with the University Post, in the queue for a cup of coffee.

He is responsible for global health, food security, water and HIV/AIDS policies and programmes for refugees. He held spoke at the conference on Health among conflict-affected persons in urban settings.

»For me, the high point was mixing with the younger students, and experiencing their enthusiasm. They have a more unvarnished point of view,« he explains. Understandable, since he himself has 16 years of experience, working with refugees in different conflict areas.


At the event , where the Danish Minister for Development Cooperation, Ulla Tornæs, held the closing address, a number of researchers presented papers in rapid-fire speeches, including the University of Copenhagen’s Jutta Skau, from the Paediatric Nutrition and International Nutrition and Flemming Konradsen, from the Department of International Health, Immunology and Microbiology, who spoke on Water and sanitation in disaster situations.

Bill Kueil, a doctor from Southern Sudan gave an eyewitness account, based on his experiences of trying to deliver healthcare in the war-torn area.

He described the extreme working conditions medical professionals face in zones of violent conflict, explaining that »we had absolutely no surgical equipment, not even a mosquito net.«

Moral obligation

However, the lack of material equipment was not the only issue in providing healthcare in such an environment, he pointed out:

»We also have to consider self-commitment and our moral obligation. If I didn’t have this, I would have just escaped along with everyone else.«

Bill Kueil spoke in favour of using qualitative methods in researching humanitarian aid efforts and healthcare in violent conflicts, echoing the sentiments of many of the speakers present.

Almost all were in agreement that qualitative data, such as estimations of mortality rates, are most useful in conjunction with richer qualitative information.

Child soldiers

This was demonstrated most clearly in Theresa Batancourt’s presentation on child soldiers. She addressed the issue of stigma and its effects on former child soldiers, which she had researched using qualitative interviews and long-term observations.

Such children often go through a period of being provoked and ‘tested’ upon their return to the home community and this can have devastating consequences for the rehabilitation of the child, her research has shown.

»We often fail to consider the post-war environment,« she stated. In this case, the qualitative study revealed tthat stigmatistation of the child soldier often results in mental suffering, depression and increased hostility in the long term.