ABU DHABI // They took four flights, crossed half a dozen borders, drove for 24 hours and covered thousands of kilometres – all to treat children in desperate need of medical attention.
The incredible journey that three doctors took to reach Al Mukalla in war-torn Yemen is documented today as they vowed to keep up aid to the areas most in need.
At times crossing through Al Qaeda-controlled territory and braving numerous checkpoints, the medics successfully treated more than 100 patients in less than a week. They also taught local doctors how to perform complex procedures.
With no direct flights to that part of the country, Dr Ahmad Maasher, a Yemeni laparoscopic surgeon, Dr Saif Eleslam and Dr Amin El Gohary – both paediatric surgeons – agreed to take any route possible to get to their patients.
“Since 2004 we have gone on about 10 missions to Yemen,” said Dr Maasher, who organises the trips.
“But since 2013 the medical and political situation in the country has been getting worse, especially the place that we had to go, Al Mukalla, which was occupied by Al Qaeda. We kept postponing the trip until April.
“Once things settled down and Al Qaeda moved from there, we thought there would be direct flights, but unfortunately they did not open the airport there.”
With many patients waiting for treatment in Yemen because of a shortage of supplies and expertise, Dr Maasher said he had to find a way to get there.
“When I came up with our best route plan to reach Al Mukalla, I thought Dr Amin and Dr Saif would say ‘no way’ because it is a very long and exhausting journey. But they said ‘let’s do it – people are expecting us, we need to be there’.”
The only way to enter Yemen was through the Yemen-Oman border. “Our only way to get to Salalah was by plane and there were no direct flights. So we took a flight from here to Doha and then to Salalah.
“Over there we had a guy waiting with a minibus to take us all the way to our destination – which is about a 14-hour journey. We reached the border in five hours and spent the night there in Al Mahra.
“After getting back on the road at 7.30am to get to Hadhramaut, our final destination, which would usually be a 10-hour trip.”
However, the doctors had to pass through seven checkpoints on their way.
“When you go to a war zone, there will be checkpoints. We went through them, and the roads are not very nice either,” Dr Maasher said.
“There were soldiers guarding the checkpoints and every time we stopped we had a discussion about why we were passing by. But when they saw that we were there for a charity mission, their way of receiving and talking to us became different.
“Everyone wants to do something good, so when they see people doing good, they encourage them.”
After a 10-hour journey on the road, the doctors reached Al Mukalla and started operating immediately.
The doctors found dozens of patients waiting for treatment. They also realised they would not sleep much in the days that followed.
“Patients were already fasting the entire day because they expected to be operated on the same day. We could not keep them waiting.
“Those people are desperate to get medical treatment, the word exhaustion did not exist there, we felt like our power was endless,” Dr Maasher said.
Alternate plans to return had to be made because of visa problems.
“We could not go back to Salalah because the other doctors could not get a re-entry visa [for Oman], so we had to cut down our trip and left Wednesday midnight to Seiyun, the closest airport.
“The only flight we got was to Khartoum in Sudan, where we had a layover for 12 hours before returning to Dubai. We then rented a car and drove to Abu Dhabi,” Dr Maasher said.
“During every mission we teach the local doctors how to do the procedures, that is very important.
“This time we had a doctor who successfully completed a procedure all on his own after we taught him during our mission, which is great.”