Dr. Sheri Fink's first book, War Hospital, tells the story of a group of young doctors trapped along with 50,000 others in Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovenia, during
the Bosnian war in 1992. Lacking surgical training and ample supplies,
the doctors faced extraordinarily trying circumstances. David Rieff calls War Hospital "a fascinating account of what it is to try to uphold (or fail to uphold) one's medical oath in the midst of genocide."
Sheri Fink earned her M.D. and Ph.D. from Stanford University,
and she has acted as a humanitarian aid worker with the International
Medical Corps in conflict zones in the Balkans, the north Caucasus,
southern Africa, Central Asia, and most recently Iraq. Her writing
has appeared in the Washington
Herald Tribune and Wall
Street Journal, among others. She lives in New York.
You spent part of the spring and summer of this year working
in Iraq. What was your function there? How were you and your fellow
Western aid workers perceived by the Iraqis? Talk about some of
I went to Iraq for three months this spring with the emergency
response team of International Medical Corps, a non-governmental
organization (NGO) that focuses on medical assistance in conflict
and disaster zones. I worked to meet needs in the health and water/sanitation
sectors in southern Iraq. There, water treatment plants and sanitation
systems had failed, leading to poor water quality and an upsurge
of serious diseases in children. Also, looters had stripped hospitals,
clinics and warehouses of critical medicines and medical supplies.
We worked closely with Iraqi colleagues to fix water treatment systems,
bring in and distribute needed medications and supplies, and many
other related tasks. When we discovered that women nurses, already
in extremely short supply, were being kept at home due to security
concerns, we organized shuttles to bring them to work. For the most
part, I felt welcomed. However, I also sensed that some Iraqis were
afraid to work openly with us.
You’ve stated that humanitarian workers, whose jobs
depend upon remaining neutral, are often “used” and
politicized by governments. To what extent is this happening in
In War Hospital, humanitarian workers in Bosnia discovered
that they were serving as a cover for international inaction (on
political, diplomatic or even military fronts) to put an end to
the war and war crimes. In Iraq, humanitarians have been extremely
wary of being used, but this time in the opposite way--some argue
they're being "co-opted" by the military coalition as
a part of a "hearts and minds" campaign to win over the
Iraqi population. You've touched on a subject of heated debate among
aid workers today. Some agencies refuse to accept funds from any
government involved in the war. Others don't see a problem with
this. Why do most aid agencies take pains to distinguish themselves
from governments or militaries? For two main reasons. One is the
fear of aid workers becoming targets. Another is the fear of not
being able to provide humanitarian assistance impartially and independently
to all who need it. Those who want to read more about this topic
can find a discussion in the epilogue to War Hospital,
which I wrote while working in Iraq, and also a recent Wall
Street Journal op-ed, which can be found on the warhospital.net
In one of your radio interviews, you mentioned that a key
difference between the Red Cross and MSF is that MSF tends to be
an advocate, whereas the Red Cross workers are not allowed to talk
about what they witness. What are some successful examples of MSF’s
advocacy in various parts of the world?
It's always difficult to judge the effects of one organization's
advocacy on larger policy decisions by political leaders. Still,
I can think of several examples where MSF's "witnessing"
has made a difference--for example the testimony of Doctors Without
Borders staff members who witnessed the fall of Srebrenica, Bosnia,
in April, 1995 has helped bring to justice some of the perpetrators
of the massacre of roughly 8000 men and boys. MSF (known as Doctors
Without Borders in the U.S.) has taken a number of stances on issues
related to health care and human rights. A current campaign involves
the demand for access to essential medicines for people suffering
from diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis. The fact that life-extending
medicines are unavailable to millions of sick men, women and children,
particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South America, is clearly
the defining moral issue of our time. Why aren't we doing more to
fix this situation?
What was it about the Srebrenica story that inspired you
to write this book as opposed to continuing your medical work?
There is so much about this story that compelled me, from the
character development that the war forced in each of the doctors,
nurses and aid workers, to the conflicts they experienced between
duty to their patients, desire to end the war, and the need to save
their own lives. I found analogies to the doctors' dilemmas in everyday
life here in the U.S. Most of all, the backdrop of the story--the
siege and ultimate destruction of the United Nations-declared "safe
area" of Srebrenica and the killing of most of its adult male
population--is a historical event that bears deep examination. "The
tragedy of Srebrenica will haunt our history forever," wrote
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. When the survivors entrusted
me with the stories of the worst days of their lives, telling those
stories became my responsibility. Even after five years of research
and writing, I'm still finding new and thought-provoking aspects
to the Srebrenica war hospital story.
In the epilogue of War Hospital, you state that
the US intelligence community was aware in 1993 that “attempted
genocide” would likely happen in Srebrenica but that the government
did not act. How much responsibility does the US have for what took
place? What should the government have done?
The U.S. undoubtedly shares the responsibility. We are bound by
our signature on the Genocide Convention to "prevent and punish"
the crime of genocide. As if that weren't enough, we owed Srebrenica
a special debt of protection because in 1993, two years before the
genocide, we and the other members of the United Nations Security
Council designated the town a "safe area" and largely
disarmed its inhabitants. In his 1999 report on the fall of Srebrenica,
United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan called on all governments
"which contributed to the delay in the use of force" to
accept their share of responsibility for allowing the genocide in
Srebrenica to occur, and for each government to investigate its
role in the fall of the town. The U.S. has not yet conducted such
an investigation, and I believe that it is time for a congressional
inquiry into what the U.S. knew about the Bosnian Serb attack and
when it knew it. Intelligence experts believe that the U.S. has
critical imagery and signals intelligence that it has not released,
not even to the war crimes tribunal in the Hague.
What should our government have done? Many historians believe that
the wars in former Yugoslavia could have been prevented with early,
concerted diplomatic efforts by United States and European negotiators.
War Hospital shows that even after the wars began, there
were many missed opportunities for the international community to
intervene. The proof, it seems, is in the pudding. Weeks after the
fall of Srebrenica, more than three years into the Bosnian war,
NATO began a concerted bombing campaign against Bosnian Serb military
targets, Operation Deliberate Force. Two weeks later, the campaign
ended, followed by a ceasefire and peace talks in Dayton, Ohio.
The war was over.
Is there any analogy between the inadequacy of humanitarian
relief in Srebrenica and the ineffectiveness of various humanitarian
programs and sanctions throughout the ‘90s in Iraq?
Srebrenica's problems had far more to do with a failure of international
protection than a failure of humanitarian relief. Still, it's fair
to say that whenever Serb forces blocked aid convoys to Srebrenica
as part of their war strategy, civilians suffered from deprivation
of basic foodstuffs and medicines. As part of a response to that
war strategy, the UN imposed economic sanctions in Serbia. Some
aid workers did see a certain analogy here, arguing that sanctions
hurt Serbian civilians more than the Serbian government they were
aimed at influencing. Whatever anyone might think of sanctions,
which are certainly controversial, research leaves no doubt that
in Iraq the period of sanctions, particularly before the initiation
of the UN's oil-for-food program, correlated with an increase in
malnourishment and disease, especially among children.
Do you believe that the use of force was the best option
for the people of Iraq (as it would have been for the people of
I met many in Iraq who wished we would have used force years earlier
to remove the tyrant who killed, maimed, and oppressed hundreds
of thousands of them. I also met many in Iraq who were angry and
deeply suspicious about the U.S.-led intervention. In the end, only
the people of Iraq can answer your question. I hate war, and no
matter how good or bad the reason for unleashing force, it will
unavoidably have its ugly and tragic consequences. Leaving the particular
case of Iraq aside, in general I believe that military force must
remain an option for our country, particularly in the case of countering
other military forces that are targeting civilians. Waging war is
evil, but sometimes it's the much lesser evil.
You recently visited Srebrenica in a bit of a reunion of
some of the characters in War Hospital. How has it changed?
Srebrenica is truly, as its inhabitants call it, "the end
of the earth." The area is extremely depressed. Much of the
war damage hasn't been fixed. However, there have been some positive
changes. In the 1995 peace agreement, Srebrenica was left in the
Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) entity of Bosnia, but the unity
of Bosnia as a country was maintained, and all citizens have the
right of return. The area, which had zero Muslim returnees when
I first visited in 1998, now has several thousand who've ventured
back to the town where they suffered so much. They've rebuilt one
of their destroyed mosques, several inhabitants have opened shops
and restaurants with the help of small grants from international
agencies, and a number of men have been elected to the city council
(with the votes of dispaced Muslims allowed to vote in their former
home districts). There is also a beautiful memorial garden and cemetery
dedicated to the memory of the thousands killed in 1995. This year,
for the first time, a Bosnian Serb governmental representative attended
the annual memorial ceremony (where more than 600 of the dead, recently
identified using DNA-matching techniques, were buried). After years
of official denial, Bosnian Serb military and governmental representatives
have finally begun acknowledging their crimes in Srebrenica, including
at the war crimes tribunal in the Hague. This is a very positive,
optimistic sign for the future, because it is providing a unified
vision of historical truth for young Bosnians of all ethnicities.
What remains to be done in Bosnia to bring those responsible
for this massacre to justice? Do you feel this is a priority of
the Western powers?
First, arrest the two most notorious fugitives, former Bosnian
Serb President Radovan Karadzic and Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic,
thought to be hiding in the region. This is a job both for both
local governments and international troops, including Americans
serving in Bosnia. Second, all governments, local and international,
must cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the
Former Yugoslavia. For the U.S., this means turning over requested
documents, allowing former government representatives to testify
with maximum transparency, and also allowing the tribunal to finish
its work rather than imposing an artificial end-date.
You’ve proven to be a highly skilled journalist and
are also well trained as a physician. Your journalistic aptitude
seems like a valuable asset for an aid worker because of your ability
to bear witness to the troubled places of the world. What kind of
projects do you see yourself undertaking in the future? If you were
to start your own NGO, what would it be like?
Thanks for the compliment. While it would be tempting to focus
for a while on lighter, fluffier subjects (a book on wedding cake,
anyone?), I'm dedicated to writing about the intersections of medicine,
science, human rights, humanitarianism, and civil rights, globally
and locally. I did start an NGO once--it was called Students Against
Genocide (SAGE), and it ran for about five years in the 1990s.
of Dr. Fink by Teun Voeten