- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2006

Fistula hospital

Dr. Andrew Browning was in good spirits as he flew with our reporter Betsy Pisik and photographer Mary F. Calvert from Addis Ababa to the dirt airstrip at the northwestern Ethiopian town of Bahir Dar.

The Australian gynecologist has seen more than his share of horrors during service in Uganda and war-torn Congo, but he chatted cheerily on board the 50-seat Fokker and during the bumpy car ride over drought-seared roads to the Hamlin Fistula Hospital.

Less than 25 minutes after his arrival at the tidy well-tended facility, he was scrubbing up for the first of five fistula operations he would perform before lunch.

The special report about the Hamlin hospital that appears on the front page today was not what we had in mind when we decided to send a reporter and photographer to Ethiopia.

We had been bombarded by e-mail messages and letters from members of the Ethiopian community in Washington since parliamentary elections in that country last year, when the opposition parties felt they had been cheated out of a large number of seats.

We had watched with concern as protests against the elections turned violent and large numbers of demonstrators and others were jailed or killed. And we also had heard from the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, which felt its side of the story was not being told.

Some of the political reporting from Miss Pisik’s and Miss Calvert’s trip already has appeared in the paper, including an interview with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, conducted at his offices in Addis Ababa. More remains to be published, including comments from some of the opposition figures.

Sometimes, however, the best stories are not the ones the reporters — and especially their editors — go looking for, and the good reporters know when to shift gears and go after something else.

‘Gut-gripping story’

In this case, Miss Calvert, who was researching social issues in Ethiopia ahead of the trip, learned about the Hamlin hospital and thought it could produce some compelling photographs.

Miss Pisik, who covers the United Nations when she is not traveling, jumped on the idea, knowing that the U.N. Population Fund had been deeply concerned about fistula — a debilitating condition involving ruptures of internal organs during childbirth — for the past three years.

“This was not only a pressing medical issue for the poorest and the least empowered members of society, but it is gaining a lot of political momentum in Washington,” said Miss Pisik, who noted in the article today the interest of Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, among others.

“This was an issue that had been taken up by both pro-life, cultural conservatives and by the United Nations,” she said.

“Before we left, I thought that would be the fascinating angle, but when we got there and we actually saw what this condition is, and how harrowing it is for those who are afflicted, I saw it as just a gut-gripping story.”

Gut-gripping it is, as becomes apparent within the first few paragraphs of Miss Pisik’s article. If we have done our job properly, however, the tale of human misery is leavened by an uplifting admiration for the individuals who are devoting their lives to help the sufferers and by the new hope they are giving their patients.

Fistula is not the only tragedy Miss Pisik and Miss Calvert encountered in Ethiopia. Encouraged by the U.N. World Food Program, they also visited a southeastern area near the Somalia border to see the consequences of the latest drought to lay waste to East Africa.

“It was astounding to see how little there is out there. No grass, no trees no scrub, no plants,” Miss Pisik said. “Just this hot, white, blasted landscape with beautifully dressed people wandering through it.”

But that is a story for another day.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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