The smell that triggers Dorsa’s memories of life in a war zone

For Dorsa Nazemi-Salman, it is the smell of antiseptic that prompts some of her most troubling memories.

"It is the sensory things [that stay with you]," she says. "It's the things that you don't think will impact you at the time.

"You see open wounds all the time. You smell the blood and smell the infection and it might not trigger anything at that moment but then later on it brings memories back, because it's not normal to see that many wounded in a short period of time."

Dorsa Nazemi-Salman says she is in awe of the strength shown by the South Sudanese people.Credit:Mari Aftret Mortvedt/ICRC

During a particular six-month period, 97 per cent of the patients admitted to South Sudan's two ICRC-supported hospitals had gunshot wounds. That rate declined slightly following the signing of the latest peace deal in 2018, but violence continues.

Hopes that the nation's independence, won in 2011, would quell the internecine conflict that choked Sudan have proven false.

In the six months to the end of March 2019, 10 per cent of the patients admitted to the facilities in the towns of Juba and Ganyiel were children younger than 15. A little more than 10 per cent were women.

World Bank data provides a bleak view of a nation in crisis. At last count, more than 80 per cent of the population were considered to be living in poverty. The country's GDP in 2016 was barely one-sixth of what it was when it became an independent nation only five years earlier.

Local economies are largely "cattle-based" and intercommunal violence, often linked to cattle raids and revenge killings, continues to threaten lives.

But thanks to the efforts of international humanitarians like Nazemi-Salman, and the incredible resilience of the South Sudanese people, some progress has been made. Average life expectancy has risen from less than 50 at the new millennium to more than 57 in 2017. In 1960, average life expectancy was 31.6 years.

Violence against women and children remains prevalent. The Red Cross is working on a list of 4200 people whose relatives have reported them as missing. Four million people are displaced in the country, which has an official population of around 11 million.

Nazemi-Salman says her work in Afghanistan exposed her to the full range of the work of the Red Cross.Credit:ICRC

It seems incongruous that Nazemi-Salman, who had only been removed from the struggling South Sudan less than a week before she spoke with The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, speaks of her time there with an irreppressible smile.

It's how she copes with what she's seen.

"For me in the past few years, especially in places where violence is quite present, I tend to refer to the strength of a community in spite of the violence they've experienced," she says, broadening her grin. "Because I don't think we talk about that.

"I just came from South Sudan, where sexual violence is endemic. It happens every day. Women … walking from one side of the village to a water point could be attacked and violated.

"I have met many of these women and the collective strength that they have in dealing with their trauma, and it is quite a heavy trauma, is amazing.

"They still have children to take care of, they still have a community they belong to, and I prefer to look at that side of their strength and not think of them as a victim. Because I think the minute you start to constantly call someone in a conflict zone a victim, you are degrading the strength they showed in dealing with their everyday struggles.

"So I prefer to look at the strength of these communities. What makes them survive and thrive, rather than seeing them as victims."

Nazemi-Salman as a child in Iran, before her family moved to Australia.

Nazemi-Salman, the daughter of a refugee and an asylum seeker, knows what people can accomplish when they are given the chance to prosper. Without the benefit of a supportive school environment in Western Australia, she recognises she may not have had the opportunity to pursue a career that has benefited so many.

She spent an earlier chapter of her career with the federal government in Canberra, in a variety of challenging roles she found "very nice" but "quite limiting". She joined the ICRC in 2012. Her work has taken her to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Namibia, Afghanistan and South Sudan.

Once she's rested and recuperated – and visited her supportive network of friends and family in Australia – Nazemi-Salman will once again go abroad in search of strong communities in need of support.

To her, it's an unquestioned part of life's routine. But a simple question makes her pause for thought.

Why? Why do you do what you do?

"As cheesy and maybe naive as it sounds," she says, "I think the world is a very beautiful and colourful place, be it in a conflict zone or not.

"One of the most beautiful places I have seen was when I drove through the … frozen front lines, and saw what they call a 'water point'. It is magnificent. I did not know South Sudan had so much wildlife.

"I thought we were being attacked by a band of wild animals … because there was this cloud running towards our car, but it was 300 children with little spears in their hands – with fish on the end of them – who had gone mud fishing.

"I think this was the first time they had seen people who were different from them. And we were as fascinated by seeing them as they were by seeing us. And there was a beautiful moment of connection.

"And I don't think we get to see that very often. I think we are so comfortable sometimes in our own little cocoon that we forget that there are beautiful traditions out there and very strong communities that deal with some abhorrent violence."

Nazemi-Salman headed up ICRC operations in South Sudan, where the evacuation of gunshot victims was a regular challenge.Credit:Mari Mortvedt/ICRC

In her previous roles – whether she was visiting prisons in Tajikistan, shanty towns in Namibia, setting up health care services in Afghanistan or donating goats to survivors of violence in South Sudan – Nazemi-Salman says there was always an important aspect to her role that wasn't in the job description. And in her next role, whatever that may be, it will be equally important.

"A humanitarian's … job is not just to address the consequences of violence, but to tell the stories of those who cannot speak for themselves.

"Not to paint them as suffering, weak, victimised human beings, but to paint them as strong, magnificent communities that are unique, bold and thriving.

"The term 'thriving' might not be the same as it is for you and me in the culture or the context we live in, but they are thriving and surviving and growing and living and breathing and I think that in itself is magical.

"Somebody should be able to tell that story, I think. So maybe sometimes it could be me."

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