The X-ray machine is broken, the surgical theatre is lit by a single bulb and electricity is provided by generators that often break down. The only hospital in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State is often crowded with patients and wards extend into the open air.

Dr Evan Atar Adaha, 55, is the only surgeon at Maban Referral Hospital, a 120-bed facility in the remote town of Bunj. Open 24 hours a day, the hospital serves over 200,000 people, including 144,000 refugees from the neighbouring Blue Nile State, most of whom live in refugee camps.

South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after a peaceful referendum. However, five years of civil war have created Africa’s largest and fastest growing refugee crisis.

Dr Atar first arrived in Bunj in 2011 after the war forced him to flee from his previous hospital in Blue Nile State.

Back in 2011, there was only an abandoned health centre in Bunj, which Dr Atar transformed into a hospital. He operated on his first patient by stacking tables to create a raised operating theatre.

The surgeon has worked tirelessly over the years, securing funding from organisations and training other young people to become nurses and midwives.

The hospital conducts between 15 to 20 caesarean section delivery procedures each week in one of the most isolated and insecure areas of the country. © UNHCR/W. Swanson

Dr Atar was recently announced as the 2018 winner of UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award in recognition of his 20-year commitment and self-sacrifice in providing medical care to people forced to flee and the communities that host them.

In his acceptance speech, Dr Atar said he was humbled to receive the prestigious award adding: “However, this award is not for me as an individual. The award is for my team back in Maban.”

Dr Atar and his team carry out up to 10 operations a day, spending hours on their feet. Dr Atar helps nurses prepare patients and checks up on everyone, from patients with bullet wounds to malaria sufferers and newborn babies. He sometimes works 48 hours non-stop and is on call at all hours.

“We are here to save lives, not to sit,” says Dr Atar. “There is no lazing around in theatre. We are all equal. We are all a team.”

But the personal sacrifice Dr Atar makes is huge. He lives close to the hospital in a canvas tent while his wife and four children live in Nairobi, Kenya. He visits them just three times a year during short breaks to recover from his gruelling medical work.

The conditions at the hospital are not only difficult, but dangerous too. The situation in Maban is volatile, with regular periods of violence in recent years.

Dr Atar meets with patients outside of Maban Hospital, where he leads a team of doctors and nurses. © UNHCR/W. Swanson

When violence broke out in the region earlier this year, Dr Atar once again remained to work in his hospital even when members of his medical team were forced to leave.

Dr Atar shrugs off the danger. “We treat everyone here regardless of who they are,” he says, adding with a smile that all sides in the conflict seem to understand that they, too, benefit from good healthcare.

His commitment to treating all people in need, regardless of their background, has earned Dr Atar the respect of both the refugee and local communities. He is so well known that many refer to it as ‘Dr Atar’s Hospital’ and patients travel for days to be under his care.

“I am most happy when I realise that the work that I have done has saved somebody from suffering or has saved their life,” he says.

“But healing is not the medicine alone. You have to assure the patient. The moment you relate to a patient, they will open their heart to you … When a patient dies in my hands I am so sad.”

Dr Atar says it is unlikely he will retire any time soon. The hospital is what gives him hope and meaning to his life.

“The more good services you give, the more people come,” he says

Dr Atar Atahi with the newborn baby of a refugee from Sudan in the maternity ward of the Bunj Hospital, South Sudan.  | Popular surgeon turns his hand to anything at South Sudan hospital

Dr Atar attends to a newborn baby in the maternity ward of Maban Hospital in South Sudan. © UNHCR/W. Swanson

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