Shot in the hip, doctor sewed herself up then helped save others
It took a thick Reader’s Digest book to finally slow the bullet that would have taken Dr Jemilah Mahmood’s life in 2003 when a convoy carrying medical supplies to children’s hospitals in Iraq came under fire. Two people were killed, and two doctors were severely injured in the attack on the ambulances clearly marked with the white flags of humanitarians.
Her driver, who had a premonition the trip would go badly, and the group’s pharmacist, died.
As the group got caught in crossfire between two communities, a bullet travelled through Mahmood’s friend Dr Baba before barrelling through the Digest book, and finally lodging in her left hip.
“I was shot through a friend – he was more injured and he took the bullet for me,” she says.
A second doctor – previously an active sportsman – was injured in the foot.
Realising that the liquid pouring down her leg was blood and not urine, Mahmood stitched up her own wound with the bullet still in her hip, where it would remain for another five weeks.
After getting Baba on the operating table, she started to cry, questioning whether she had made the right decision bringing her team from the humanitarian group Mercy Malaysia into the dangerous region, she tells Fairfax in an exclusive interview.
“We had a white flag, everything was correct,” she says.
Her grief was cut short by news that a badly anaemic woman was going into labour, and needed an emergency c-section. With her sore hip propped up by a box, Mahmood – a successful obstetrician and gynaecologist in Kuala Lumpur until she founded Mercy in 1999 – delivered a healthy baby boy.
Six hours later, the woman was packing to return home with her newborn baby.
“Why are you going back?” Mahmood asked.
The woman’s response made Dr Jemilah, as many call her, feel “very small”.
“If the bombs drop on my home tonight, I want to be with my children,” the woman said.
Mahmood says it was this woman and those humanitarians who were injured and died that day – and others who have died since – who are heroes. To call her one – as some have done – is to show disrespect for those who died, she says.
“Why am I complaining about this bullet in my hip?” she recalls thinking. “We can’t fight our destiny. There must be a reason why I am here? If I gave up, I wouldn’t be doing justice to those who gave their lives.”
That day was when Mahmood realised white flags no longer protected humanitarians from attack.
Saturday is World Humanitarian Day. Fourteen years ago on this day, bombs destroyed the Canal Hotel in Baghdad killing 35 people, including senior international humanitarians. In October that year, a car bomb attack destroyed the headquarters of the International Red Cross in that city.
Australian artist George Gittoes, who photographed the site, said “it was the day humanitarianism became a target – absolute ground zero for the human spirit”.
Mahmood is now under secretary general for partnerships at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) – the group whose emblem is meant to protect aid groups from attack. She presides over 190 national societies with 17 million volunteers.
Keeping them safe is harder than ever. “The humanitarian sector is no longer sacrosanct and international humanitarian law is no longer upheld,” she says. “We are under attack when we shouldn’t be.”
Since the start of 2017, 29 Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers have been killed in the line of duty. As well, 60 Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers have been killed since the start of the conflict, along with eight from the Palestine Red Crescent.
An obedient wife
For a humanitarian, Mahmood is very funny. She jokes that she only ended up where she is today because she is “an obedient Muslim wife”.
Her conventional life changed one night when she was watching news of the war in Kosovo on television with her five-year-old son. As she was telling him how children there were hungry, her son said: “Mum, you are a doctor, go and do something.”
Mahmood took her son’s advice, and wrote offering her services to every major humanitarian organisation. Only one responded.
But her husband suggested that if she really wanted to make a difference as a humanitarian, as a Malaysian, as a woman, as a doctor and as a Muslim, she should create a new organisation. He prompted her to set up Mercy Malaysia (the Malaysian Medical Relief Society) the first international humanitarian organisation to be started in Malaysia.
“I am just a very obedient Muslim wife. When my husband says set up an organisation, I do,” she said in a speech.
Funded by donations from patients and friends in Malaysia, Mercy’s team arrived in Kosovo in June 1999. They had so little money volunteers had to pay their own airfares to fly into a war zone.
Later, Mercy’s medical team was first to arrive in wartorn Aceh Province in Indonesia, the epicentre of the December 2004 tsunami. When CNN filmed Mahmood and the medical team amid the debris and devastation, her phone rang with offers of help. Before accepting donations, she asked some – including large consultancy firms – to help her establish Mercy as an accountable long-term organisation with strong governance that would survive long after she left, which she did in 2009.
In each place, Mercy worked with the local community as equal partners, something her mother taught her as a child.
As a teenager, her mother would fill her bag with money, and send her off by plane to visit poorer cousins in Singapore to buy them school supplies and shoes.
“My mother would say get your own school shoes at same time. She really trained us to make people feel comfortable, it was not about making them feel helpless,” says Mahmood. “At the end of the day, dignity is probably the most important thing – and maintaining the dignity of people affected by a crisis is crucial.”
In Darfur she asked the local imam near where the group was staying (outside the UN compound) for advice on escape routes if disaster struck. Mercy wanted to provide health services, but they needed a service in return.
The imam worked with local leaders to develop a security plan. “What we are providing is a lifesaving assistance, but what you are providing is lifesaving to us. We will be equals,” she told the local group.
It is the same approach she has used elsewhere. She is now calling for local organisations such as the Red Cross to get more support so they can take the lead after disasters, such as Cyclone Winston in Fiji last year.
International agencies often pay too little attention to local groups – often “swarming in and ignoring the local talents”, she says. There had been a big shift in the past 20 years with international agencies genuinely trying to engage with local communities.
But more needed to be done. “They [local community groups like Red Cross] shouldn’t just be consulted, they should be allowed to lead,” she says.
A mini United Nations
Mahmood has described her childhood home as a “mini United Nations”. This may have prepared her for previous jobs, including as chief of the World Humanitarian Summit secretariat at the UN and as one of 16 members appointed by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon to the advisory group of the Central Emergency Response Fund.
She grew up in Malaysia, and attended a Catholic girls school. She was the youngest of 13 children in a diverse family full of marriages between different races and religions. Her mother was of Chinese descent and born a Buddhist, but became a Christian before converting to Islam.
The family’s hallways were full of people who needed somewhere to sleep and something to eat. With so many people, her mother said the young Jemilah needed to learn to negotiate and not shout.
On Friday, the son who inspired her to start Mercy and work as a humanitarian is turning 24. Sometimes he regrets being her muse.
“He has had to pay the price of his mum tripping around the world,” she says.
The story Shot in the hip, doctor sewed herself up then helped save others first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.