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Heroic doctor on suffering, hope and the need for aid in Sudan

Dr. Catena treats a patient at Mother of Mercy Hospital in Sudan. Photo: Paul Jeffrey/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

The Aurora Humanitarian Initiative has announced Dr. Tom Catena, who for the past decade has been the only doctor based permanently in Sudan’s war-torn Nuba Mountains, as its first chairman.

Why it matters: Catena is a former winner of the prestigious Aurora Prize and was named one of TIME’s Most Influential People in 2015. I spoke with him about his work, the humanitarian crisis in Sudan and the prospects for peace. Catena told me the “big international players” have a responsibility to end the deadlock that has starved the region of humanitarian aid.

Mother of Mercy hospital, where Catena is based, is the only facility capable of treating patients who require “a high level of care” in an area roughly the size of Austria. He treats up to 500 patients a day.

  • Catena arrived in 2008, during a short-lived period of peace when it was much easier to get food, drugs and supplies in and out. “Everything’s gotten more difficult over the past 10 years,” he says.
  • Where things stand: "We’re in a bit of limbo,” Catena says. There has been a ceasefire in place for the past six months. The country remains in a state of civil war, but the fighting and aerial bombardments are on hold. Numerous rounds of negotiation have passed without a breakthrough.

Because the area is controlled by rebels, no humanitarian aid is allowed in despite the desperate needs of the 750,000 people living there, many of whom have been suffering from food shortages in recent months.

  • So intense is the distrust between the rebels and government that the sides can’t agree on how aid should be delivered. The government wants it to flow through Sudanese territory. The rebels want to bring it in directly from neighboring countries. For now, it is blocked almost entirely.
  • There are significant shortages of food and medicine. A three-year period where the hospital was unable to obtain vaccines, Catena says, led to “a huge measles epidemic” that was “entirely unnecessary.”

The bottom line: “Overall, people are hopeful,” he says. “But almost everybody here, since they were born, they’ve been in conflict. They’ve been disappointed so many times,” and you can see it in their faces, he says. They know not to get their hopes up too high.