Dear Dr. Ang,
As a child I was moved by your book and it made me more conscious of the humanitarian crisis in the region. Little did I know that over a decade later I would be writing you this email…
I was excited at the prospect of meeting my childhood heroine in London, 12 years after reading her memoirs in her book From Beirut to Jerusalem. It had been a year since I left Palestine and I longed to be in the presence of someone who shared my affinity for Palestine and her people living under occupation.
Yet truthfully, I did not expect a response. Dr. Ang is after all a practicing Orthopedic Surgeon whose daily schedule I imagined to be hectic. I was certain that she would not have the time to speak to me.
I was wrong. A week later, on a quiet Sunday morning in London I walked a long way to meet Dr. Ang outside a church in Covent Garden.
It was our first meeting, but things felt familiar. We exchanged hugs like long-time friends. We walked along the cobbled alleys and spoke about daily things in our distinct Singaporean accent. Over breakfast, I listened to Dr. Ang’s stories about how she had first volunteered to be a medical volunteer in the war torn region.
Born in Penang and raised in Singapore, Dr. Ang is the daughter of prisoners-of-war during the Japanese occupation. She later studied Medicine in the University of Singapore and graduated in 1973.
In 1977, she married her late husband, Francis Khoo, a human rights lawyer with a strong sense of social justice. 2 weeks into their marriage, Francis’ inquiry into human rights violations incurred the displeasure of the authorities. He escaped and sought political asylum in London and Dr. Ang joined him soon after.
In 1982, while living in London, she had seen on British television the Israeli bombardment of Beirut, Lebanon. As the camera captured a bird’s-eye view of the shelled buildings in Beirut, Dr. Ang remarked that the destruction she saw had an eerie resemblance to her high-rise flat in Singapore.
Soon, when there was an international appeal for medical aid in Lebanon, Dr. Ang readily volunteered.
Having grown up with pro-Israeli sentiments based on her study of the Old Testament, Dr. Ang, soon learnt that the reality on the ground was not a conflict based on religion but rather the politics of greed. Starting work in Gaza Hospital that overlooked the Sabra neighborhood and the adjacent Shatilla refugee camp in Beirut, Dr. Ang met the Palestinians who had been forcefully evicted from their homes in 1948 after the establishment of Israel. Prior to meeting the Palestinians, Dr. Ang was warned that they were “terrorists”. What Dr. Ang discovered for herself was quite the contrary.
In an interview with the Singapore Medical Association, Dr. Ang was asked how she would describe the Palestinians. She replied, “Very, very generous. Very, very hospitable and most of them are extremely kind. Long suffering is the word. I use the word ‘long suffering’ because ‘patience’ somehow in the modern language has become too trite a description. They have suffered for so long, they have lost their homes, they cannot see their future and yet, the human qualities do not vanish. That is why I know they are the children of God and one day, God will give them what is just.”
In her book, Dr. Ang vividly recounts witnessing the casualties of the Sabra-Shatilla massacre on 15 September 1982 streaming into Gaza Hospital. Seeing that most of the injured were women and children, the unimaginable dawned upon her: it was not a war against terrorists as it had been claimed to be. The gunmen had entered the homes in Sabra and Shatilla and shot the inhabitants indiscriminately.
“One day something good happened, this boy whom I treated just before the massacre spotted me – little Mahmoud came out and started to put his arms around me “Dr Swee! Dr Swee!” and I said “Oh Mahmoud!” He said, “We saw the soldiers take you – all the foreigners, to the UN building and that’s where they killed everybody so I thought you were dead.” So he was so happy and started to cry, and I realized that poor Mahmoud has lost his family – he was now an orphan.”
(Extracted from Dr. Ang’s presentation in London on 10 December 2004)
Amidst the massacre, Dr. Ang and the other foreign medical aid workers from Gaza Hospital were not spared intimidation. One day they were rounded up by militiamen at gunpoint and made to march down the road littered with bodies of the Palestinians who had been massacred. Later, Dr. Ang and her colleagues from Gaza Hospital were subjected to mock-executions where they were told to surrender all their belongings, remove their white coats and stand against a wall. Two bulldozers were ready to knock down the wall over them. Nearby a group of soldiers stood by as if ready to shoot them down.
These mock executions were enacted to evoke fear and break the spirits of those who dared to help the Palestinians of Sabra and Shatilla. Yet, no amount of threat would stop someone so determined to help others that she neglected her own safety. I asked if Dr. Ang feared for her life at any point. The petite Dr. Ang said, “No. Why would they kill me? I am only a doctor.”
To me, Dr. Ang is not only a doctor but also an exemplary human being whose courage and compassion I wish to emulate.
To my surprise, toward the end of our meeting, Dr. Ang took out a new copy of her book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, and began to write in it before giving it to me. I read the book again later, as a young woman this time, after first reading it as a child. The same tears began to flow. My heart ached for the children who had once played on the streets and were now gone, tortured before they were killed. Women who would have welcomed you into their homes and fed you with food they cooked from their hearts, raped before being murdered. Through writings and images documented by foreign volunteers like Dr. Ang, their stories live on for the world to see.
I wondered if the gravity of things that this soft-spoken, petite lady had seen in her lifetime has caused her to become disillusioned with the world. I understood intimately the burden of knowing that the world is not beautiful for everyone and that some people still live in desperate conditions as a result of war and poverty.
Yet, Dr. Ang had not lost the warmth of her character. Throughout our meeting, I felt at ease in her company. Her encouraging words tell me that she believes in the hope for a better future. To Dr. Ang, the fact that young people are becoming aware and sympathetic of the difficult circumstances beyond the comfort of their own homes is a great step forward.
In a letter to her husband, Francis, in 1982 after the Sabra-Shatilla massacre, Dr. Ang wrote:
I cry like a young soldier would, one ready and prepared for a battle, but fallen even before the battle has begun. However, I laugh, laugh victoriously, for I know that there are millions that would carry on the struggle after me.
I looked into the face of death and have seen its power and ugliness, but I have also looked into his eyes, and seen its fear. For our children are coming, and they are not afraid.
(Extracted from From Beirut to Jerusalem by Dr. Ang Swee Chai)
From Beirut to Jerusalem is available at Wardah Books at the following address: 58 Bussorah Street Singapore 199474 +65 62971232 email@example.com It can also be ordered direct from the publisher The Other Press Kuala Lumpur.