Doctors often take their vacations away from their workplace to seek relief from stress, but 50-year old Zouhair Lahna is different. He dedicates his time off to serving humanity.
The activist surgeon has accumulated 20 years of unique humanitarian volunteer experience. He has traveled frequently to the Gaza Strip, Syria, and, more recently, to Yemen. Dr. Lahna told Inside Arabia that his travels have taught him that the commonalities humans share should be enough to abolish differences based on “borders and beliefs and tribal affiliations.”
His determination to serve others inspired him to opt for “medicine as a human profession.” In 1992, he received a Diploma in General Medicine from the University Hassan II in Casablanca before moving to France, where he studied Gynecology and Obstetrics and received a Diploma in Surgery in 1998. Since then, he has worked in France with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders), an international humanitarian medical NGO.
Inside Arabia met Dr. Lahna at his home in Casablanca, Morocco, where he recounted his experiences.
Medicine for Humanity: Touching Moments from Palestine
“Health is priceless, but it has a cost, and everyone must have the right to health.” This is the belief that Dr. Lahna adopted after his graduation. His volunteer work began in Afghanistan in 2001, when the U.S. invaded the country post September 11.
The war doctor has visited Palestine seven times since 2002; the West Bank four times; and the Gaza Strip three times. He provided field assistance to the wounded during the three wars (2008, 2012, and 2014) launched by Israel in the Gaza Strip since 2007. He witnessed Israeli air strikes and the casualties, injuries, and disabilities they inflicted. The 2014 Gaza war was the worst of the three, lasting for 51 days and killing 2,322 Palestinians, including 578 children, 489 women, and 102 elderly people.
Dr. Lahna saw the Palestinians’ tragedy with his own eyes for 30 days. He arrived in Gaza on the fifth day of the Israeli offensive, an unforgettable moment that he remembers as “bloody and terrifying.”
The first man Dr. Lahna saw had been severed in half. “That night three people died in my arms and I saved a child,” he said. “I received more than 50 people per day. The number of casualties coming to Shifa Hospital and Nasser Hospital was dramatic, that’s why I had to work in the Emergency and General Surgery Department.”
Dr. Lahna was supposed to spend two weeks in Gaza, but Egypt’s closure of the Rafah Border Crossing—the only entry to the Gaza Strip under Palestinian and Egyptian control—forced him to stay for one month. “I took the opportunity to provide more medical assistance,” he added.
For years, Egypt has used the Rafah Border Crossing to exert pressure on Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007. However, the crossing’s closure is now a collective punishment of the whole Gaza Strip by restricting the movement of its residents and isolating them from the rest of the world.
Gaza’s wars have deeply touched Dr. Lahna. After his departure, he decided to dedicate 80 percent of his time off to voluntary work.
Without MSF: Dr. Lahna’s New Challenge to Save Syrian Civilians
When Dr. Lahna began volunteering with organizations other than MSF in 2011, it was a turning point. “MSF has imposed restrictions on us in the places we visit, preventing us from going to conflict zones,” he told Inside Arabia.
In 2012, a year after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Dr. Lahna visited the Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. “The situation of women and children was very tragic. We established an obstetric unit and provided a lot of assistance,” he stated.
In coordination with the Syrian Relief Federation, which includes Syrian doctors living in France, Dr. Lahna visited war-torn Syria between 2014 and 2018. The war between Bashar Al-Assad’s regime and the opposition destroyed the healthcare system. More than half of Syria’s medical centers were closed or partially functioning, and 11.3 million people needed health assistance, including 3 million experiencing serious injuries and disabilities, according to the World Health Organization.
The demands for medical aid campaigns in the northern, opposition-held areas grew as the war escalated. This drove Dr. Lahna to travel to Idlib eight times. His ninth visit was to the Kurdish-controlled northeast. Although his visit was purely humanitarian in nature, he was not able to obtain a government permit to help the wounded in other areas of the country.
The region received more than 2 million displaced people and there was a “severe shortage of medical facilities in Idlib due to a systematic targeting of the health sector,” Dr. Lahna explained. “The international organizations did not have an emergency plan for the arrival of the displaced and the response was limited to local actors in this area,” he added.
The image of a five-year-old Syrian child who was admitted to the emergency department of a hospital in Idlib is still etched in Dr. Lahna’s memory. “Her pelvis was torn apart after a shell fell on her house and killed her mother and aunt,” he said, trying to hold back his tears. “She was my daughter’s age. I felt better after I managed to save her, and I still visit her whenever I travel to Turkey.”
Resistance Against the Saudi-led Coalition Blockade in Yemen
During the wars in Syria and Yemen, patients have been killed in their beds and medical staff attacked while rescuing the wounded, according to MSF. Dr. Lahna described his trip to these conflict hotspots as “a risk because the authorities deal with victim rescuers as opponents.”
Wars often restrict individuals’ mobility, but Dr. Lahna finally made it to Yemen in late 2018. It was “unimaginable,” he said, explaining that he had obtained the visa to go to Yemen from France “after three years of trying.”
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab of Emirates (UAE) have imposed a land, sea, and air blockade on Yemen since the start of their military intervention in March 2015. The UAE and local forces’ control of the seaports and airports, as well as the entry of any imports, has severely impacted the living conditions of millions of Yemenis.
Dr. Lahna visited the city of Marib and Al Jawf governorate, where medical services were devastated due to their proximity to the battle front lines between the Saudi-UAE-led coalition and Iran-backed Yemeni rebels known as the Houthis.
In Al Jawf city, “there is only one hospital, though it lacks staff,” Dr. Lahna told Inside Arabia. “Only one surgeon and two doctors serve hundreds of patients. Most of the treatment is provided free of charge, but . . . medicines are scarce.” In contrast, the situation seems somewhat better in the government-supported Marib province. Marib’s general hospital provided immense help for the Yemenis. “I conducted 14 surgeries per week and trained 60 midwives and nurses [during my stay],” Dr. Lahna added.
Denying access to health facilities has been the most lethal weapon against Yemenis. According to the United Nations, the war has destroyed 50 percent of the country’s health facilities, many by coalition air strikes, and much of the transportation infrastructure. Dr. Lahna remembers a woman who travelled 300 miles from the province of Taiz to reach Marib hospital. But due to the damaged and unsafe roads linking the two cities, it took her a whole day to arrive instead of the normal seven hours.
Dr. Lahna found that the war on health in Syria and Yemen is more horrifying than the one he saw in Gaza. “The rivals have used health as a weapon in these conflicts,” he said.
The experiences that Dr. Lahna has had over the past two decades have made him believe that he is a doctor for all human beings regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, or nationality. “I am looking forward to being a catalyst for all doctors in the world to save lives in conflict areas.”
As so many doctors who risk their lives to heal the injured and dying in war torn countries, Dr. Lahna knows that nothing else in the world is more meaningful or more fulfilling. Their work is an expression of love and compassion in the truest sense. For those of us who observe from the sidelines, it is a lesson in humility.