P.EOPLE OFTEN wondered why Gino Strada led the life he led. With his cardiac and pulmonary surgeon skills, which he trained not only in his hometown of Milan, but also in Stanford and Groote Schuur in South Africa, he could have settled in a pleasant villa somewhere outside the city, working and growing at a leisurely pace the roses he loved. Instead, he seemed to live in operating theaters in desperate places, draining, cleaning, cutting, and sewing the worst wounds imaginable. They were huge wounds, the result of land mines and bomb explosions, that tore corpses to shreds. He stood outside among the patients in his bloody smock, a disheveled-looking man with a messy beard who smoked chains.
Worst of all, his patients were rarely fighters. If it had been them, he would have treated them all equally, as people whose beliefs or belonging made no difference to him. But wherever he worked, in Iraq, Pakistan, Rwanda, Yemen and especially Afghanistan, where he spent seven years, the war wounded were almost exclusively civilians. There were women fetching water, farmers digging, buyers at the market. What did they have to do with war? Almost half of the injured, young enough to cry and yet not cry stoically, were children. In Afghanistan, many had picked up one of the little “green parrots” that had been dropped from Soviet helicopters, strange pretty things that would burst in their hands.
The reality of the war for the common people, the fact that they bore the brunt, shocked him deeply. Likewise the fact that there was hardly any health care in war-prone locations. However, this was certainly a basic human right, an extension of the right to life. It was also, he believed, an equal right: no question of sophisticated high-tech treatment for the few and a few aspirin and syringes for the others. Both the poor and the rich should receive the best medical care the world can offer. And it should be free for the poor.
After completing his training, he had worked for the International Red Cross, but soon wanted to go his own way. His charity Emergency, which was founded in 1994 with his wife Teresa Sarti and around 20 friends, had equality as its top priority. While its job was often to replace the Red Cross when it withdrew from battle zones, it also provided free top medical centers in nightly and unexpected locations. In Sudan he set up a heart surgery center, one of the best in Africa, where he often worked himself. Pediatric centers have been set up in the Central African Republic and Uganda, where it was designed by his friend Renzo Piano. In Iraq, 300 amputee craft cooperatives were set up in his trauma clinic so that they could start business after they left. These hospitals were immaculately clean, equipped with the latest equipment, and staffed with international and local teams. They were also oases of calm, surrounded by orchards and gardens. In Italy, where Teresa raised most of the money, some people grumbled about palaces in deserts. That made him all the more determined. His hospital in Sudan, in a mango grove on the Blue Nile, would be “scandalously beautiful,” he promised. It was.
In Afghanistan, where his heart was, a trauma hospital was built in the Panjshir Valley, as well as the best birth house in the country; Over 7,500 babies were born there in 2018. In 2001 he opened another emergency hospital in Kabul, the first in the city, as well as a network of first aid stations. It was a fight. In order to build in the Panjshir Valley, he had to reassure Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Masoud about drinking lots of tea at night, but in Kabul he had to speak to Mullah Omar, the then leader of the Taliban, to get permission and a page. He convinced both men that he was neutral in the war as he really was, viewed the American invasion as a disaster and knew only too clearly how it would end. At least when the westerners left, emergency was still there, though in Lashkar-Gah he pleaded to be left alone, took patients away from the windows, and featured a “hospital” banner prominently on the roof: do whatever it takes to provide the only health care to ensure. Afghanistan had or has supply system.
He was not receptive everywhere. Nothing was going on in Somalia and Chechnya; the insurgents built walls. In Libya, he closed the emergency hospital because the wounded were just local criminals who shot each other. Meanwhile, the sheer persistence of the conflict seemed to mock his efforts. Instead of treating the wounded all the time, he wanted the wounding to stop by itself. No more land mines or green parrots and definitely no more war. It had to be done away with, for the sake of humanity.
Was that just another crazy utopian dream, a Gino fantasy? He refused to think that way. Emergency had already succeeded in 1997 in banning the production of anti-personnel mines in Italy, once the third largest manufacturer in the world. Negotiation worked; it had worked for him even with the Taliban when NATO thought it was impossible. He could foresee a time when speech would replace fighting, and when war would appear as unthinkable as slavery. He might not live to see it again, but then people believed in all sorts of things that they couldn’t see. Speaking of which, he thought Pope Francis could listen to his views on the war.
In the meantime he continued to work. His work seemed like a drop in the ocean, but he was a surgical beast, interested and appalled when he encountered another atrocity. He felt tired and his voice scratched from all the cigarettes, but in the theater he was watchful and calm, fixing whatever needed fixing. In compensation came a damaged heart that started pumping again, or a smile that returned to a child’s face; or when he visited Soran, a boy whose leg he had removed in Iraq, now a confident lawyer.
The landmines remained, many of them lurking for millions. The men continued to fight against each other. But in the middle of it all, he was determined to establish beauty, not just for himself, but because she showed respect for the patients he cared for. Her life had been considered worthless by enemies she barely knew; now they were valued. There were 200 varieties of roses in his hospital garden in Kabul. One day they could fill his wards where the war wounded used to be. ■
This article appeared in the obituary of the print edition under the heading “Blood and Roses”.