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“Africa’s solution is in the hands of the Africans” Interview with Br. Fernando Aguiló

Fernando Aguiló interview:“Africa’s solution is in the hands of the Africans” 

The Sierra Leone Civil War (1991-2002), which was exacerbated by such factors as  poverty, misgovernment, corruption and the so-called blood diamonds,  has made a tremendous impression on the rest of the world. And the medical Brother of the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God, Fernando Aguiló (Palma de Mallorca, 1950), knows this better than anyone. He had been working 15 years in the hospital of Mabesseneh when the war broke out. In 1998 he was captured by the rebels who tried unsuccessfully to use him as an exchange prisoner. Aguiló left the country in 1998 and later returned. Since 2002 he has been collaborating with managers and local doctors in the renovation of the medical complex that was partially destroyed in the war.

Question (Q) What was Sierra Leone like when you arrived in 1965?

Answer (A) It was a quiet country: precarious, but the people were very friendly and down-to-earth. When the country exploded it took us all by surprise. It’s true that there had been corruption and perhaps with the same conditions in another place it would have exploded earlier. But …. really we never imagined there would be a war. 

Q And was the medical situation better than now?

It was different and worse. The government centres hardly functioned, it was the missionary centres, Protestant and Catholic, that managed healthcare. In 1967 we had 30 beds, and in 1994 we had 110 with two annexes for tuberculosis cases and convalescents. Before the war we were overwhelmed, there was so much work. We were only two medical Brothers. If I operated on a hernia then on the third day the patient had to be discharged to a convalescent home in order to have free beds. We couldn’t send people home because they had no kind of assistance there.

Q What were you first – a Brother or a doctor?

A First I studied Nursing and later Medicine when I was in the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Barcelona. In the third year of Nursing I coincided with my cousin in Medicine. One of the conditions of the Order was my departure to Africa. When I finished my studies I spent two years in the Barcelona Maternity Hospital because that was what I was going to be my speciality in Sierra Leone. Actually, I later also specialized in surgery. 

Q How did you experience the first day of war in the Hospital of Mabesseneh?

R The war started in 1991 in the southeast, where the diamonds are, but it didn’t affect us until four years later. A direct attack occurred the 1st of January 1995 at 7 o’clock in the morning while I was stuffing a chicken to celebrate New Year’s Day. We heard shots and all of us, the Brothers, went to block the hospital door in case the rebels or the soldiers arrived.

After a short time we had to go to the operating theatre to look after all the people wounded by bullets.

Q Did they respect the hospital?

There was a moment when the rebels entered but they left at once.

Q Did they always respect it?

Until February 1998, when they left Freetown the rebels thought that foreign hostages could serve as human shields or as possible exchanges. Five of us were captured. We were with them for 14 days but we passed from being highly-prized prisoners to a nuisance … 

We were captured again by the rebels. Luckily, the local people recognized us and organized themselves to bring us water, food and demand our freedom. We managed to get a car with petrol and the rebels handed us over to the Ecomog troops [from the UNO] who they had previously made a pact with.  

Q Were you afraid?

A There was a moment when I was. When the rebels told us that after losing the country’s second capital, Bo, they would kill us. And it was lost. We were about to be executed but were saved by one of them shouting “Spanish, Italians, Austrians … these are useless. It’s the North Americans and the English who are worth something”.

Q The hospital held out for three years? Does this deserve recognition?

When the rebels took us hostage the African Brothers wanted to exchange themselves for us as a sign of their gratitude. But the rebels themselves said “You, like us, are black. Blacks are worth nothing”. Even the hospital patients from the rebel side wanted to stop the capture, but the orders came from above.

Q Did the staff consider at any time leaving the hospital?

A No, they were always with us. Besides, they were all on the same side because the rebels, encouraged by Charles Taylor in Liberia, functioned in another way. They attacked villages to take children and turn them into soldiers. In a country where work opportunities are minimal and hunger thrives, for a couple of pennies you can have all the army you want. It was along the line of “You look after my interests and I’ll turn a blind eye to what you do”. The civilians were the victims. After the elections of 1996, the amputations began: “Long sleeve” was the hand; “short sleeve” the whole arm.   

Q What happened to the boy soldiers?

A  A lot of them were under the effects of drugs and some now suffer mental illnesses. Those that could overcome their experiences handed in their arms and received some money which they used to by motorbikes and become taxi drivers.

Q What was it like living day by day in the hospital with so many atrocities going on around you?

We were working so hard at the time that we didn’t have time to stop and think about what was going on.

Q How did you get out?

We left in 1998 and returned in August of the same year, but the situation was so chaotic that we left again on the 30thNovember. On the 8th of December I was sent home for health reasons.

Q And when did you come back?

A In 1999 we went to Lungi where the refugees and hospital staff were. We performed deliveries in a clinic without an operating theatre. In 2002 we returned to Mabesseney. We found that we had to renovate the hospital because it had been occupied for two years by the rebels and then two years by United Nation troops. They were Pakistanis and if they had to knock down a wall to get better vision they did not hesitate. Thanks to the help we received we have been able to rebuild.

Q How has the reconciliation been?

A Unlike the civil wars of Ruanda and Burundi, the one in Sierra Leone was not between ethnic groups. As a result, the post-war period was easier.

Q Why is Africa still the same or worse alter so many years of co-operation?

A Because sometimes we are so arrogant that we formulate co-operative strategies from here without considering what Africans have to say in the matter, And when they see they are not involved in a co-operative project I already know that the project is doomed to fail.

Q What do they ask for from the hospital?

We were surprised that, with the occasional exception, they only asked for first line products. As Africans they know they need some training. They want to be themselves. Africa’s solution is in the hands of the Africans, we Europeans can only partially help them out.

Q What is Africa’s problem?

A Africa’s problems are everyone’s. In the first place, there is demotivation. They work really hard for a misery. On the other hand, international donations can do harm. For example, some farmers might not be able to sell their rice crop because they can not compete with the prices of subsidised rice that has arrived through international aid. We give them our leftovers without thinking of the consequences.

Q Corruption is everywhere?

 Yes. It’s true that there are corrupt governments in Africa, but often they are backed by “legitimate” ones. During the war the only product that was exported were diamonds which were sold on the black market for arms.

Q Do the NGOs still play an important role?

A Yes. They are still important, but I believe they must become more professional. It’s not a question of giving fish but rather teaching how to fish through capacity-building.

Founded in 1967 by the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God, this current year the Hospital of Mabesseney has been the only medical centre for thousands of inhabitants of Sierra Leone. Local personnel and the African Brothers took over from the Missionary Brothers in 1986. In 2005, however, the Hospital of Sant Joan de Déu in Barcelona significantly contributed to the renovation of the complex when it established a brotherhood with the order in Sierra Leone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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