Episode: "Into The Crisis
Full name: Leslie India
Birth Place: New Delhi,
Hobbies: Reading (everything!
I'm a dedicated fan of the New Yorker magazine, which is great to
read when you're in the field: loads of short articles about totally
diverse topics, a good distraction); Amateur window box gardening.
Years with MSF: Six years
MSF missions completed:
Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan (twice), Sierra Leone
What brought you to MSF or sparked your interest in humanitarian
work in general?
You know, it’s easy for a lot of organizations to go to countries
and hand out pills or food or build latrines and ignore the bigger
picture of what’s happening, ignore the fact that those pills
and food might be stolen the moment the patient leaves the clinic,
or that women are regularly being raped at night behind those nice
I became interested in MSF because MSF is not just a technical
service provider, it’s also concerned with injustice, with
trying to understand why and how people end up in these desperate
situations, and trying to improve these situations, and that definitely
attracted me. Of course there are also practical, selfish reasons
why I joined MSF: I was interested in travelling and working in
conflict areas, and MSF was a great way to do that because it’s
often one of the only organizations on the ground in many places.
Is there any one moment that stays with you from your trip
Oh dear, there are so many…. One I’ll never forget
was in the Nuba mountains. This is a place that was cut off from
humanitarian aid for more than ten years, totally isolated, and
civilians were terribly targeted—lots of bombing and shelling
and horrible abuses.
But when I was there I asked this man about how people dealt with
all these things, like being bombed. I was expecting him to say
how terrible it was, and that the whole population was traumatized.
Instead he said, “well, some people love it when there’s
bombing! The blacksmiths, for instance. they go out and collect
all the metal from the bombs and make hoes and other items.”
I just sat there and sort of gaped at him and then started laughing,
but I love that, how people are so resourceful and adapt to circumstances
in ways you can’t even imagine if you haven’t experienced
these things yourself.
How do you think your human rights work fits into MSF’s
People are often surprised to hear that MSF would employ legal
or human rights advisors but you have to understand that even during
wars, there are still laws that apply, and of course most of the
doctors and nurses and others who work with MSF don’t know
much about the laws of war and what fighting forces are allowed
to do and what they’re not allowed to do. So one part of my
work has been training and advising MSF teams on international humanitarian
The other thing is that over the past ten years, many humanitarian
agencies have come to realize what MSF has known for a long time,
that they cannot just provide assistance without looking at protection.
In other words, it’s important to treat people for cholera
or malnutrition or bullet wounds, but you cannot work in these conflicts
as a humanitarian worker, among communities being killed and raped
and abducted, and just focus on your programs and ignore these other
things that are happening.
In a lot of the conflicts we see today, water and shelter and health
care are crucial, but security is sometimes the top priority. The
best humanitarian agencies know this and while they are often helpless
to provide security themselves, they have a responsibility to raise
these problems with those who do have the power to provide it—like
local authorities, rebel commanders, governments, and sometimes
the United Nations.
What we call the witnessing and advocacy role really is the second
half of MSF’s work because MSF is working in abnormal situations
with so much violence taking place – we can’t just ignore
it. You can’t work in these places and just look at patients
as a series of wounds and infections and disregard the context they’re
coming out of, you have to ask, why are six-year-old girls coming
to the clinic with bullet wounds? Why are people malnourished in
an area that’s chock-full of fruit and grain? Why are refugees
being forced to return to places they fled – what is wrong
with this picture?
My work has been to help translate the anger and indignation over
these events into messages and tools that can be used to try to
show what’s happening and push people to address this kind
of injustice. An MSF doctor or nurse can look at that child who’s
been shot and know instinctively that that’s not acceptable,
but sometimes they need advice on what’s the best way to deal
with those situations.
How do you cope with the culture shock of bouncing between
fieldwork that focuses on human rights abuses in the developing
world and a relatively peaceful domestic life in the Netherlands
and the US?
Well, I’ve moved around the world all my life—I think
I went to about nine schools in at least five different countries
as a child, so I’m sort of used to it. Still, it can be very
disorienting—I usually enjoy the idea of going somewhere new
and hate the idea of pulling up roots in the place I’m in.
I think one thing that helps me is reading: if I’m feeling
out of sorts I tend to go back to the favorite books I read as a
kid-- The Count of Monte Cristo is great for total escapism. It
also helps a lot that my husband, my family and a lot of my friends
have also moved around and so they can picture and understand some
of what I talk about.
Do you have any mental exercises or routines that help
you with this?
No, not really. I think that one of the reasons I don’t wear
a watch is because I travel and work across time zones so much.
I tend to be a bit late for appointments though….
What did your work with Sudan mean to you as a professional
or personal learning experience?
I know I learned far more than I ever could give back, both professionally
and personally. I think that’s what a lot of people don’t
realize about humanitarian work. I think that often they see people
who do this work as some kind of martyrs or heroes, but in fact
it’s an unbelievable opportunity to learn, and of course you
try to give something back, but most of the time what you gain far
outweighs what you give.
Very specifically, what do you hope that your work accomplishes,
in other words, ideally, what is the process by which research like
yours in Sudan can influence the situation for civilians on the
You hope that things will change, you hope that abuses will cease,
or lessen. Of course, this is rare and incredibly slow and hard
to measure, but sometimes you do see changes. You know, I sometimes
envy the medical people. You prescribe a drug or clean a wound or
deliver a baby and pronto, you know you’ve accomplished something,
at least for that individual. It’s totally different doing
advocacy work—you’re generally working against vested
interests—warlords or governments who are getting something
out of abusing people in places that are ignored or unknown to most
of the world.
How can you convince them that it’s in their interest to
change their behavior? If they’re doing these things out of
ignorance—because they don’t know about the laws of
war and how they’re supposed to protect civilians and not
recruit children, then you can ask ICRC (International Committee
of the Red Cross) to come and train them, or tell them that child
soldiers are illegal.
But if they’re doing these things deliberately, like in Western
Upper Nile, then the best that you can hope for is that when you
tell people outside what’s happening—governments, publics,
the UN—that they’ll apply pressure to stop it. But so
often the political interest just isn’t there unless it’s
an important country and the timing is right, so it can be discouraging,
especially when it takes such a long time and you see so much waste.
You need small achievements to keep you going, and these do happen.
Do you think that your research in Sudan did this, or is
Well the report certainly didn’t stop the abuses, I wish
I could say it had. Honestly, it would have been naïve to expect
that. I can tell you one thing that I’m very proud of though.
I heard that not long after the report was published, one of the
local Sudanese newspapers in Khartoum actually published the whole
report serially, in Arabic. I think this is one of the most important
and exciting results I could have dared to hope for—to actually
get accurate, in-depth information about what is happening in their
country to thousands of Sudanese. This is so important because most
people in Khartoum and in the north are almost totally cut off from
what is really happening—the vast majority have never been
to Western Upper Nile or anywhere else in the south, and they hear
a different version that comes through the local media, which is
mostly controlled by the government.
It’s also important because in the end, if there’s
going to be real peace in Sudan, it will have to be the both northern
and southern Sudanese who push for it and they will need to try
to understand each others views of history and the war. It’s
a very polarized society and there have been abuses by both sides
that will take a long time to forgive, so it’s important to
have independent records of what has happened.
What are your hopes for the population of the Western Upper
Well, peace is the most obvious one. This population has been through
so much, you can’t go there and meet people and not feel your
heart go out to them. But even aside from the war, I think this
a population and a culture that is very special. It’s hard
to express, but as an outsider and a visitor, I hope that when the
war ends, they are able to make a graceful transition and keep the
many fine aspects of their culture while entering the modern world,
Any other comments you'd like to share about Sudan or MSF?
Just the huge admiration I have for the many Sudanese I’ve
met all over the country. That’s one of the weird things of
being with MSF—I’ve probably been to more parts of Sudan
than most Sudanese my age—most people are unable to travel
because of poverty or conflict or ethnic origin, and I’ve
been to almost every region, so it gives me a different perspective
on the place and the conflict. And I hope that it won’t be
too long before Sudanese have that same opportunity to get to know
the many fine people in what could be such a marvellous country.