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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Leaders stay, others run

By Farah Stockman

When war broke out unexpectedly in the streets of Khartoum, Sudan, Dr. Hiba Omer, a senior surgeon, could have fled like so many others. Instead, she stayed behind to keep a hospital open. Her city was in its hour of greatest need. If she left, who would perform the C-sections and treat all those bullet wounds? Even after a Sudanese military official accused her on social media of siding with its enemy, the RSF militia, sparking a barrage of death threats against her, she refused to flee.

“I will never leave Khartoum,” she told me. “I will stay here, until death. I have a responsibility, and I will be staying until we do our job. It is a professional commitment.”

Whenever a place becomes unbearable because of a natural disaster or a war, our hearts go out to the refugees who make the desperate trek out. But it’s the people who stay behind who will decide the country’s fate. They are the ones who will determine whether refugees will have a home to return to.

Consider what Ukraine would be like today if President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had taken the American offer to spirit him to safety at the beginning of the Russian invasion. His famous reply — “I need ammunition, not a ride” — shamed the West into providing more aid, boosted morale and inspired a nation. How must Afghans have felt when they learned that their president, Ashraf Ghani, who had vowed that he “would never abandon” his people, had hastily departed in a helicopter as the Taliban approached? No one can begrudge him the instinct of self-preservation.

But saving your own skin — and leaving those for whom you are responsible to suffer — is an abdication of leadership.

Honorable captains go down with the ship. They don’t slink off in a lifeboat while no one is looking. Ghani’s flight stood in stark contrast to the bravery shown by Afghanistan’s ex-president Hamid Karzai, who posted a video online announcing that he and his three young daughters would be staying in Kabul, at the very moment when other internationally known Afghans were frantically packing their bags and departing for luxurious estates they own abroad.

Karzai’s voice in that video, nearly drowned out by the sound of helicopters evacuating people, must have given some comfort to the poor who could not flee. It made me wonder if Karzai would be Afghanistan’s leader today, had the Americans not micromanaged his every move.

Which brings me to the subject of Americans who threaten to move to Canada every time an election doesn’t go their way. More than 5,000 people renounced their American citizenship in 2016, and more than 6,000 renounced in 2020, according to an analysis by The American Expat Financial News Journal. (It’s not clear how many did so because of politics.) More than 3 million American voters are estimated to be living abroad, some of whom say they left the United States because of political strife.

In today’s postindustrial world, citizenship is just another commodity that can be purchased for a price. When the water rises too high or the weather gets too weird or a bloviating narcissist threatens democracy, those with the resources can book a ticket out. I can’t begrudge those acts of self-preservation. But I can call it what it is: an abdication of the leadership role that wealth and education once commanded. The broken bond between the globalized elite and the ordinary people they leave behind is one reason for the rise of populism across the globe.

The doctors of Sudan should inspire all of us to think differently and live up to our responsibility to help the people in the places we are from. In 2019, Sudanese doctors helped turn a protest over the rising price of bread into an organized uprising for democracy and civilian rule. When the military dictatorship tried to silence them by arresting them, imprisoning them and torturing them, they organized a general strike.

Omer was detained for 58 days. Now those military men have hijacked the pro-democracy movement and turned their guns on one another, dragging their country of 46 million people over a cliff.

Since fighting erupted last month between the Sudanese army and the RSF paramilitary group, Omer and other volunteers with the Sudan Doctors’ Trade Union, which she leads, have worked with civilian resistance committees to keep a hospital functioning. They slept in its wards and shared scarce medical supplies. They have taken a neutral stance in the war, she told me, treating wounded fighters from both sides alongside civilians.

Nevertheless, she and her friends have received a barrage of threatening messages accusing doctors of refusing to treat some Sudanese soldiers while treating others. In one video that Omer forwarded to me, a military official said she is now “considered a traitor” and that her “day will come.”

Even before those threats, the war was already deadly for doctors. At least 10 medical professionals have died in the chaos and crossfire, including Dr. Bushra Ibnauf Sulieman, a U.S. citizen who was stabbed to death by thugs outside his home as he escorted his father to a dialysis appointment, and Dr. Farida Abdel Moneim of Omdurman Maternity Hospital, who died in crossfire on her way home from work.

Fortunately, Omer is still alive and tending to patients in Khartoum. The Sudanese army and the RSF — which just struck an agreement to withdraw their forces from hospitals and to allow aid to reach civilians — must ensure that she stays that way.

The world has never quite figured out how to make the men with the guns share power with civilians who have earned the people’s trust. But it has never been more clear that the doctors of Sudan, who save lives, would be better leaders than fighters who take lives.

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