What is war?

Every war is followed by another. For Dr. Igor Auriant, the war in Ukraine is reminiscent of his mission in Liberia. There, too, death showed its vile face.

Article translated from the original French version

Igor Auriant is an intensive care physician in a clinic in Rouen, France. When we asked Dr. Auriant if he kept photos of his mission in Liberia, the answer was eloquent: "I have some, I never take them out, it's still too painful." After his other missions with Médecins du Monde [a French NGO created in 1980 by former members of Doctors without Borders], in Iran and Haiti, there was a psychological debriefing. Not in Liberia. "We carried a heavy emotional burden from that mission, and I buried it all", he reflects.

Talking about death

Death can be sweet, sometimes the physician just has to do nothing. Igor Auriant understood this at the beginning of his career, thanks to a 90-year-old woman who had a stroke. He let her go, just as he did years later with a young terminal patient. He let death take its course and let words take their course, the words that are passed on to loved ones. In his TEDx talk "What if we die in peace but with life?” [Original Title: Et si on mourait en paix avec la vie?] Dr. Auriant soothes and tells of his appeasement.

And then there is the other type of death, the mass death that ends up eventually wearing you down, death by the hundreds, the death of wars, of earthquakes, of COVID. The physician does not get used to mortality rates of such magnitude, because they mask the horror of unacceptable deaths. So Igor Auriant gets involved. He goes on missions as soon as he can. And when he can't, he helps others to leave. He obtained assurance from the management of his hospital that the staff recruited by Médecins du Monde be replaced and paid. Five or six care workers would join missions, several times, thanks to his engagement.

"These days, it's like the earthquake in Haiti, I looked at my TV and thought 'I should be there'". In 2010, Igor Auriant left as soon as he saw the images. "For Ukraine, I applied but it's on hold." For lack of action, there is an urgency to speak up. To report the war as it is: dirty, cold, and raw. To say that the body counts going up here and there are not merely numbers, but the rotting bodies of human beings.

This time the physician's words do not accompany a peaceful death. They shout about the abject face of death in war. To prevent it from approaching and in turn from being remembered. We share with our readers, Dr. Auriant's reflections.

Benoît Blanquart
 Editor for esanum.fr

A War Report from Liberia, by Dr. Igor Auriant

1990. Held hostage for six days in northern Liberia, we are freed thanks to Charles Taylor's victory. After contacting Paris, the decision is taken as a team: We continue on the ground.

Our destination was Monrovia, with our two jeeps. We have to cross the whole country, roughly ten to twelve hours of driving. Taylor won, so we expected things to be quiet. In fact, every ten kilometres, there is a checkpoint, a barbed wire stretched across the road. You stop, a kid comes along with his machine gun, points at you and then lowers the wire and you pass.

Actually no, he points at you and shouts "Cigarette!" So you reach into your pocket for the lifesaving cigarette, give it to him, he laughs, you watch his finger tremble on the trigger. The gun finally goes down and only then does he lower the wire. You pass, finally, but it will happen again every 20 minutes, until Monrovia. Each time my hand rests on the packet of cigarettes, the key to survival.

Suddenly on the road, or rather on the track, one of the jeeps hits a bump, a dip and the 4x4 ends up off the track, two wheels in a river. In a few moments we arrive at the spot and find the occupants, safe and sound. The vehicle had to be winched out of the water.

A marine cemetery

I look for our nurse. She lies on the ground, trembling. I approach her, thinking I understand her emotion, her fear after the car accident. She is very pale and shivering all over her body, and no words can come out of her mouth. Despite her trembling, she points to the vehicle in the water. "There, there." I look at the river and at the car in the water. All around float bodies, human bodies swollen by the sun, sometimes on their backs, sometimes on their stomachs.

An indescribable image of a marine cemetery. Multitudes of bodies abandoned to the sun, the water and the dogs. This death that drifts and is counted, one then two, then three. Each death is an additional weight, a stigma of our inaction, each death is an affront to our humanity. No respect for bodies; no burial.

Death in this scale explains what you are, you thought you knew death... but never imagined it without humanity. The sun was shining on this day of victory for some, of freedom for us. As for those in the water,  this was an unspeakable fate. On that day, in which laws of war gave a right to kill... I would have lost my mind. I wondered who could decide, to pull the trigger, to shoot like that? Who could live with that?

Alcohol, the driver and the dogs

We arrive late in Monrovia. We go to the hospital, and it is darka already. With light from our headlamps, we enter a nameless place where nameless patients survive, without infusions, without beds, without blankets, without medicines. A hospital ravaged by war where only those who could not flee remain, where the living have stolen and looted everything, where nothing remains.

So we give infusions, medicine, and dressings. And we talk. We set up the few beds we can find. To restore a semblance of humanity: a vague care centre with barely treated patients.

We return to the base camp, promising that we would be back the next day to the care centre. At the camp, there are journalists, other humanitarians, and a mix of laughter, smiles, tears. There is this war correspondent, a Reuters journalist, an old veteran who covered Vietnam. Sitting in a corner, he repeats over and over again that he has never seen anything like this, never seen children killed, never seen the dead abandoned, never seen a gun that shoots before it even knows which side you're on, just like that, not to protect, not to defend, just to kill.

That night we drank a terrible alcohol, strong enough to warmly lull you into sleep so you can rest enough until the next day. We drink with him, the veteran. There's nothing else to do.

The next day, we were on the way to the hospital. The victory was "well celebrated", and we find the road littered with bodies. The dogs walk in the middle, they are not hungry. The hospital is almost destroyed. And the wounded we treated yesterday? Some were shot in the head. Others had their IVs stolen. The cupboards were even emptier and the dead more numerous. The last wounded, the last living, those who could not flee, are lying among the dead. We can't operate on anyone, we put bandages on everyone. To keep things clean, at least.

The car outside is guarded by our driver. And he is shot in the head: the unbelievable misery of not being of the right ethnic group in such a conflict. We find out about him when we leave the hospital. The other Liberian drivers push us into the car and order us to flee. This is war in all its beauty, without music, without special effects.

In Liberia we saw the vile face of death. An undignified death, an arbitrary death, the kind that blindly mows down young and old alike. A death that you cannot understand. You can accompany, you can help. But you can´t do anything else. Death is the antithesis of life. But this type of inhumanity in war has to be told, be it the death of one or the death of a thousand. Because each death is a human one.