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Published: 2014-06-26

Ellinor Ädelroth: With the right to make a difference

NEWS War, poverty and natural disasters. The major global challenges require human input. Meet Ellinor Ädelroth, professor emertia, who have gone out into the world and made a difference – and who has been based at Umeå University.

It was through a group trip with her Pentecostal community that Ellinor Ädelroth first went to Bukavu in eastern Congo. The group was to visit a day-care centre for children with disabilities that the community had supported.  But Ellinor Ädelroth made a detour and visited the city’s university, L’université évangélique en Afrique (UEA).
“I asked the vice-chancellor if they had enough teachers for their medical students. ’Why are you asking that?’ he said. I explained that I’d like to help, being as I’m very knowledgeable in that field,” Ellinor Ädelroth says over a crackling phone line from Bukavu.

Offered to return to Bukavu

At that time — in summer 2008 — Ellinor Ädelroth  was a Professor of Pulmonary Medicine, Consultant and Head of the Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine at Umeå University, with responsibility for 200 employees and 120 doctoral students. She thus had a lot to do back at home, but nevertheless offered to return to Bukavu.

The following summer she packed her bag, travelled down and held a course in pulmonary medicine for future doctors — with an interpreter and an unreliable power supply for her PowerPoint presentations. Ellinor Ädelroth then returned to hold her course every summer up until 2012. In the autumn of  that year she retired, and moved down to Bukavu to work full-time, teaching and providing healthcare.

Assistant Hospital Manager at Panzi Hospital

Ellinor Ädelroth is now Assistant Hospital Manager at Panzi Hospital, which started up in 1999 with the support of the Swedish Pentecostal movement.

Bukavo is no ordinary place to work. In beautiful surroundings on the border with Rwanda, the city is in the middle of one of the most dangerous areas in the world, and harbours around half a million war refugees. The latest civil war in Congo, which broke out in 1998, has thus far cost six million lives.

The conflict, which is basically about the country’s rich mineral reserves, has taken more victims than any war since World War II. At the same time, around two million women have been raped and tortured — most of them young girls. These mass rapes have become part of the warfare tactics.

Special department for the victims of rap

At Panzi Hospital the manager Denis Mukwege — or Le docteur, as he is usually known — has built up a special department for the victims of rape, 250 of the 450 hospital beds being reserved for these patients. Thus far over 33,000 women have been treated there.

The women suffer doubly from the assaults: apart from the very serious physical injuries they are usually rejected by their families after the rape, as they are then deemed unclean and  shamed. The hospital thus becomes like a second home for these women.

For several years Dr Mukwege — who has also been an honorary doctor at Umeå University since 2010 — has travelled all over the world to inform people about the violent developments in his country and plead for the need for increased international intervention.

Bemoaned himself for the General Assembly of the UN

In autumn 2012 he was on the General Assembly of the UN, and bemoaned “the ear-splitting silence and lack of courage within the international community”. He has received a number  of prizes for his work, including the Palme Prize and African of the Year, as well as the Right Livelihood Award 2013, commonly known as the alternative Nobel Prize, and he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Dr M has earned every single one of these prizes,” says Ellinor Ädelroth, who during his absence stands in as hospital manager or médicin directeur.

Ellinor Ädelroth is responsible for administration and planning, and she also looks after patients and does a fair amount of teaching — chiefly about pulmonary diseases, but also about information searching. She has furthermore organised a special department for infectious tuberculosis patients.

Well guarded hospital

A normal working day starts 5am. That’s when Ellinor Ädelroth gets up in her two-room apartment in the former Swedish Mission in central Bukavu, in an enclosed area with a lovely garden. She gets a lift to the well guarded hospital, works until 4:30pm, then goes home before it gets dark.
“You can’t move freely here in the city — especially not after dark. And if I have anything to attend to I’m always driven by my chauffeur.”

The working day is intensive and exhausting. She gets every third Saturday off:
“I then go off and read, or spend time in the garden.”

Over a year ago the M23 rebels took the nearby city of Goma, 150 km to the northeast. The Swedish embassy advised all Swedes in the immediate vicinity to go home, so Ellinor Ädelroth was forced to return to Umeå. But just six weeks later she was back again.

Are you never afraid?

“If I were afraid wouldn’t be here. But I’m not careless. Like me, many people here are Christians, and that gives you a feeling of inner security. I am as I am, say what I think and call a spade a spade. It doesn’t always go down that well,” she says.

In spring 2013 there was an incident that thoroughly disrupted hospital procedures.
“All of a sudden a hundred or so young men with cudgels forced their way into the hospital area. It was a bit worrying, so we had to ring the local UN forces for help. At the same time we  had to bring to safety those patients who had come out to see what was up. But things calmed down, and nobody was hurt,” says Ellinor Ädelroth.

Where do you get your courage from?

“My mother and grandmother were both courageous, so maybe I get my courage from them. If you believe in what you’re doing you can be courageous, but this work is exhausting. I’ll just have to see how long I last.”

Congo — a country shaken by conflicts

The democratic republic of Congo in Central Africa has huge natural resources such as diamonds, gold, cobalt and oil. Despite these reserves, this country of 65 million inhabitants is nevertheless one of the world’s poorest countries. After a long colonial period as a Belgian colony, Congo became independent in 1960.

Ever since then the country has been rent asunder by domestic conflicts and power struggles. The First Congo War lasted from 1996 to 1997, and was followed by the Second Congo War from 1998 to 2003. But despite a peace agreement the country is still plagued by extreme violence, above all in the eastern provinces.

The conflict in eastern Congo escalated in spring 2012, when the M23 rebels took control of parts of the region, with unclear political objectives.  There is a big international presence in Congo. The world’s biggest peace keeping UN mission — MONUSCO —has been operational in the country since 1999.

Text: Johan Wickström
Photo: Mattias Pettersson

Editor: Karin Wikman