The humanitarian identity of Médecins Sans Frontières is rooted in medical assistance to "populations in danger." But we never intended to care for entire populations, which from a medical point of view is impossible anyway. It's much simpler, more humane - and a lot smaller!
We care for people - one person at a time. Our humanitarian identity puts the individual human being - with all his worries and concerns - at the center of our attention. Through the discovery of our patients, and the recognition of the individual human being and his suffering, we may render the medical act truly humanitarian.
It's the most vulnerable who need the most attention; they are at the same time the most anonymous and forgotten. It's the sick, the wounded, children and elderly persons, the aggressed, the poor, the unprotected. Human beings in acute distress need other human beings to get back on their feet and the hand held out by the medical doctor won't be refused.
As much as in the Western world, patients in developing countries - and even more so in war contexts - need more than a prescription and a cold handshake. They expect attention, time and an encouraging word - this is only human! Technical knowledge and competence are important to treat people correctly, but insufficient when we want to care for human beings.
If we keep this in mind, the medical act becomes not only a way to cure a patient of a given disease. There's a lot more to it. It's the discovery of a person and the context she or he is living in; it's a confidential, intimate relationship; it's a glimpse into the past of a suffering individual - and, hence, offers the possibility to preserve or restore the human condition, which frequently is affected by more than just a physical "health problem."
Crisis situations in general, but especially those characterized by extreme levels of violence, have a disastrous effect on the self-respect of affected individuals. Being confronted with violence can be a depersonalizing, even dehumanizing experience. In crises like those in Ituri (Democratic Republic of the Congo) or Liberia, human life is too often degraded to mere survival.
The local communities have only very limited resources to react to this unimaginable extent of human suffering. The individual is frequently left alone to overcome injuries, hunger, fear, diseases and the terrible feeling of having irrationally been attacked by other human beings. Aid actors, politicians and today's media frequently reinforce the proliferating anonymity of human suffering when trying to draw attention to a given crisis situation. That's why we have to constantly remind ourselves that behind the empty eyes, the hungry faces and the infected or wounded bodies, there is the universe of an individual human being with his own perceptions, ideas and dreams and, thus, specific needs.
There were times when the suffering surrounding us was almost unbearable. I remember the bombing of a town and its civilian population in northern Afghanistan (1997); the endless stream of refugees seeking protection and assistance after having been attacked in their camps in the Guéckédou region of Guinea (2001); the hollow eyes of a malnourished child joining hundreds of others in one of our feeding centers in the bush of southeastern Angola (2002); the woman with a terrible machete wound in her neck after by chance surviving an attempted decapitation in Bunia, Democratic Republic of the Congo (2003).