Surviving Saddam

Surviving Saddam

Dlawer Ala'Aldeen, professor of clinical microbiology at Nottingham University, thinks that doctors are better placed than politicians to help make the world a better place. Rusheng Chew speaks to a man whose commitment to human rights is the main priority in his personal and professional life.

Rusheng Chew

University of Nottingham, Nottingham

BMJ 2003;327:s173 (29 November)

To all extents, Dlawer (Del) Ala'Aldeen looks like your typical academic: unassuming, keen on his research, and with a string of letters after his name. However, there is more than meets the eye to this 42 year old professor of clinical microbiology at Nottingham University, as I was soon to find out.

Del is an Iraqi Kurd. To many of us, this may not mean much. However, to him, it is the reason for many of the major choices he has had to make. To put this in its proper context, until not so long ago the (now deposed) president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was engaged in "systematic genocide of the Kurdish people, as well as wanton denials of human rights in Iraq," as Del puts it.

Compulsory military service was a fact of life for Iraqi youth. Back in 1983, this meant only two choices for the newly graduated doctor from the University of Al-Mustansiryia: "Either I joined the army, in which case I would have had to fight against my own people, or I left." Del chose the latter—but it wasn't all that easy to leave, naturally. He tells me that he had to leave Iraq through the mountains on the Kurdish-Iranian borderusing smugglers' routes—without his family. Once out of Iraq, he made his way to the United Kingdom, where the rest of his family who made it out gradually joined him.

I ask him why he chose medicine. "Medicine? It was something that I always knew I wanted to do—it is top of the professions as far as humanitarian reasons are concerned." And what about microbiology then? With a smile, Del replies: "I was drawn to microbiology by fate." He goes on to explain: "I wanted to go back to Iraq, especially Kurdistan, and help rebuild it once Saddam was overthrown—who would have known he would bein power for so long? So initially I wanted to specialise in infectious diseases, as over 70% of patients in Iraq suffer from some form of infection. But the academic side of things was being grossly neglected, and I figured that there was a greater impact to be made if I did academic clinical microbiology instead." Additionally, Del is much more interested in teaching and research than clinical work, and he felt that microbiology offered something with a bias towards the former while not neglecting the latter.

But as committed as Del is to microbiology, in which he trained in the United Kingdom, he is even more passionate about his work for the Kurdish cause, especially where human rights and chemical and biological weapons are concerned. This is hardly surprising, given that Del has had experience of discrimination against Kurds in Iraq and that his parents and siblings were survivors of attacks with mustard gas and other chemical agents. To this end, he was the founding secretary in 1988 (and chairman from 1992 to 2002) of the British based Kurdish Scientific and Medical Association (KSMA), an organisation that, among others, aims to "enhance medical and scientific cooperation between Kurdistan and the UK." Its activities include seminars and lectures, and it is instrumental in getting academics in the United Kingdom to act as external examiners for the three medical schools in Iraqi Kurdistan. The KSMA also solicits donations of books and equipment. "The Kurds always had the potential—it was just not developed under Saddam," he tells me. Del has no regrets at being involved in fighting for the Kurds, even though it was dangerous going against the Saddam regime. He says pointedly: "I have no regrets about fighting Saddam Hussein or tyrants like him."

I have no regrets about fighting Saddam Hussein or tyrants like him

The KSMA has been effective in promoting the causes Del is concerned with. For example, realising the power of the media, he has given media interviews and has publicly lobbied parliament and 10 Downing Street on the Kurdish issue, as well as that of chemical and biological weapons. In 1991, during the Gulf war, Del metthe former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher to ask for her help in pushing for British support for the Kurds. This resulted in £20m ($33m, €28m) of aid for them and the creation of a safe haven, which lasted till the 2003 war. Del is modest about his achievements, however. To my suggestion that he is a hero to the Kurds, he replies: "I did my part, and everyone else did theirs; it was this that brought about success."

Del is also involved in work outside the KSMA. He was appointed to the British working party on chemical and biological weapons, which works towards disarmament. In June 2003 ("two weeks after the toppling of Saddam's statue") he went back to Baghdad to work with the charity Save the Children, focusing in particularon the understaffed paediatric hospital. Naturally the city, and indeed all of Iraq, was short of drugs and supplies, and so instead of being directly concerned with patient care, Del took on a coordinating role, concentrating on "enhancing [the] capability [of the health services], and suggesting projects to help in [its] reconstruction and modernisation." Still, he thinks he could have done more, the only constraint being thetime he would have had to spend in Iraq. How did he feel, going to a place that was literally a war zone? "I was prepared for the risks," he says, adding, "What brought me back was greater than what could have kicked me out again." He tells me in no uncertain terms how liberating it felt to be back in the city of his youth, "now that the atmosphere of fear and terror is gone."

In his (obviously limited) free time, Del makes sure to spend time with his family: "I look after a young family [he has a wife and three children] and sizeable garden, as well as my ageing parents. I keep in touch with them and my siblings, who are very supportive of what I do." Besides that, he socialises a lot with friends. Writing—in Kurdish, English, or Arabic (he also knows a little Persian and Turkish)—for various journals and participating in KSMA activities (Del is still actively involved even though he has given up the chair) occupy the rest of his leisure time. I ask Del how he manages to have a life outside his work—perhaps he might have some useful tips—and he replies: "With difficulty. I have a very supportive wife, who is also Kurdish, and try to organise my time well, but it's not always easy."

Ever the activist, Del has these words of advice for medics: "Stand up to human rights abuses anywhere in the world; as medics we can do more than politicians to make the world a better place. As doctors, we have the right to push politicians for improved health services for people in other countries, and this gives us the best angle, and moral high ground, for lobbying."

Rusheng Chew, third year medical student

University of Nottingham, Nottingham

BMJ 2003;327:s173 (29 November), doi:10.1136/bmj.327.7426.s173

Published in BMJ Careers at

Also in studentBMJ 2003;11:393-436 November ISSN 0966-6494

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