In normal circumstances, 37-year-old surgeon Shazeer Majeed should be living a comfortable life in the port city of Mangalore in Karnataka. But this doctor has been in Amman, Jordan, for the past one year, taking care of war-wounded people.
What brought this Mangalorean to Amman as the medical director for the Reconstructive Surgery Project of Medecins San Frontieres or Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is his interest in humanitarian work.
The organisation brings in war-wounded patients who need reconstructive, maxillofacial, plastic, and orthopaedic surgery from war-torn Palestine, Iraq and Yemen. Syrian refugees living in Jordan are also brought in. "We want to return them to a near-normal life," said Dr Majeed.
Inspired by his father Abdul Majeed, a surgeon who always helped the downtrodden as well as his then mother-in-law Nimmi Sheriff, Dr Majeed joined MSF in September 2014. "Their work for the poor had a big impact on me," he said.
He did his undergraduate studies from Yenepoya Medical College in Mangalore. This was followed by a residency in general surgery at the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences in Kochi. Then he did his ‘humanitarian surgery in an austere environment' from the Catholic University of Leuven, Brussels in 2018. At present, he is pursuing his Master's in Public Health from King's College, London.
This surgeon's everyday life is riddled with painful stories of people. He talked about a 14-year-old boy Noor Abdullah (name changed), who lived in the town of Ad Dahi in Yemen. The boy had found a landmine near his house. He tried to open it because it fetched a good price with scrap-metal dealers, but it exploded.
The major injury was to his right hand. Noor was rushed to the emergency room of a hospital run by MSF. "There were a lot of shrapnel wounds and his forearm had fractured," said Dr Majeed. "The main artery which supplies blood to the hand was damaged," he said.
The boy was in shock. But at the same time, he was aware of his injury. He kept saying, "Please do not amputate my hand."
At that moment, Dr Majeed did not have the equipment or the instruments to do vascular surgery. The instruments were in another MSF project, at Hodeidah, 53 km away. But within an hour, it was brought to the hospital.
He did a graft repair. He took a vein from the leg and used it on the forearm. "We were able to re-connect the arteries and restore the blood supply, which fixed the fracture and saved his hand," said the doctor who has done numerous stints in South Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Yemen. Within a couple of weeks, Noor was able to move his fingers and arms. And in four months, he made a complete recovery.
Not all are lucky
But not everybody experiences this recovery. Dr Majeed says there have been many instances of patients dying. "But I pick myself up. Honestly, we are putting in 16 or 18-hour days and when we return to our apartments, we just want to sleep. There is no time to think about victory or defeat in the operation theatre. Sometimes, after a patient passes away, we immediately begin work on another patient to save his life," he said.
There have been times when the doctor has worked for over 30 hours at a stretch. This was during a stint in Yemen. "There was fighting close by. We just kept receiving patients, so we slept when the operation theatre would be cleaned before the next patient was brought in," he said.
Sometimes, the MSF sends its staff to another country for five days, so that they can recover from the stress and tension. "So, if you are in Yemen, they will send you to Djibouti," said Dr Majeed.
As for the patients, most of them are ordinary men, women and children. The military has its hospital to treat their victims.
Usually, people get wounded by bullets and bombs. But not all injuries in Yemen are caused by the war between the Saudis, who are allied with the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, and the Houthis. "Sometimes, bullet injuries happen when there are fights between family members or friends because Yemen has one of the highest ratios of gun ownership per population in the world," said Dr Majeed.
Even minor injuries can become fatal at times. Sometimes, the bullet may hit the leg. But if the hospital is four hours away, the person will bleed to death. If the gunshot is to the chest and the hospital is 20 minutes away, they survive, he said.
"It is usually a low-resource setting. So, I have developed ways to overcome these limitations," the doctor said.
As to the precautions to safeguard the lives of the doctors, nurses and patients, the MSF shares their location with the warring parties. On the roof of the hospital, there is a large logo of MSF; this can be seen from the air, along with the Red Cross sign which depicts a hospital. However, despite these precautions, MSF hospitals have been targeted in Yemen and Afghanistan.
On May 12, 2020, insurgents attacked the Dasht-e-Barchi maternity hospital in Kabul. Twenty-four women and children were shot dead. "The organisation is always in touch with the local authorities and keeps them updated," said Dr Majeed. "We tell them we are impartial and neutral and have only one aim: to provide medical care to the people who need it," he said.
He feels sad about the impact of the six-year war in Yemen. The economy is in a free fall. Many young Yemenis want to go abroad for studies. Now, they are unable to do so because of severe financial constraints. The medical facilities have broken down.
"There is a lot of hardship, and a high degree of malnutrition because of food shortage. There are outbreaks of cholera. But the people are nice, humble, and smart. They are eager to learn and are good at grasping a subject," he said.
Expectedly, Yemen had a large number of Malayalis. Before the war began in 2014, his MSF colleagues in Yemen worked with a lot of Malayali nurses. Now all of them have left the country. Many of them took advantage of Operation Raahat, which was conducted by the Indian armed forces to evacuate Indian citizens and foreign nationals from Yemen in April 2015. "I don't think there are any Malayalis left in the country," he said.
However, there are many Yemenis of Indian origin. Their great grandfathers had migrated to Aden from India during the British rule.
All these years of working in war zones has changed him. "I appreciate life much more. We complain when we don't have electricity in our houses for 15 minutes but there are people who stay in 50 degrees centigrade and do not have power for days together," he said.
It is also a blessing to walk around in a safe city like Mangalore. "You can get out of your house, and get back without any major incident happening to you," he said. "That is no longer the case in Syria, Palestine and Yemen. You could be shot at or bombed. I appreciate everything about life," he said.
Whenever he finishes a stint with MSF, the doctor returns to Mangalore where he does operations alongside his father who works in private hospitals.
Asked how he has viewed the incessant attacks by one group of men on another, and vice versa, he said, "men have been killing each other since the beginning of time. It is usually in the name of religion, country, caste, or tribe. Man will always find a reason to kill other human beings. But what is most disheartening is that those who suffer are not involved in the battle. They are the ordinary people who just want to get on with their daily lives, like having a job and looking after their family."