“My Soul is Young”: An Encounter with Dr. Gerhard Freilinger
Gerhard Freilinger is not your average doctor. He has led a life that is immediately enviable, but at the same time, one that has called for a great deal of courage. Having lived through wars and being exposed with the effects of conflict – both tangible and intangible – Dr. Freilinger has seen every side of both guns and operating tables in a whirlwind that has spanned seven decades. Nareg Seferian caught up with the man at the Kurdistan Regional Government representation in Vienna.
“I was born in Upper Austria, in Linz [in 1927]. I became a soldier at the age of fifteen,” Dr. Freilinger recalls. But his military career during the Second World War did not last long, as he ended up as a prisoner of war in Yugoslavia at just 17 years old. “I was in very, very bad condition after two and a half years of prison in Yugoslavia. I came home in 1946, very heavily damaged. My soul was sick, my heart was sick.”
Interested in being a doctor at a young age, Dr. Freilinger recalls how, at 12, he told his parents, “I would like to see this hospital [in Linz], but not only the operating room.” This was surprising to a family of lawyers. It was during his recovery in Salzburg, which took more than a year, where he decided to take on medicine as a profession. He finished with his schooling and then studied medicine at Innsbruck, followed by a fellowship in the United States. Notably, he ended up working in the field of plastic and reconstructive surgery, helping people deal with the physical scars of war.
He used his education and skills in a wide-ranging manner. While both working and teaching full-time in Vienna over the course of the following decades, he was among the first who specialized in plastic and reconstructive surgery in Austria. Dr. Freilinger juggled his time and efforts to travel, lecture and operate all over the world, with special interest in conflict areas.
“I wanted to express my gratitude to the Americans, and they asked me if I would go to Vietnam, and I said, ‘Yes, of course, why not?’ So in 1967, I was called to Saigon,” Freilinger recalls. ”I was there for almost two months, operating and lecturing at the university in Saigon. I was very happy and full of enthusiasm all over.” This was followed by a second stint of war surgery in Vietnam in 1973, and then on to working more with Americans in Afghanistan in the period before the invasion by the USSR in 1979.
But it was not only serving in unstable situations that interested Freilinger, nor just the West. As to the other side of the Iron Curtain, “I was becoming interested in Raumfahrtmedizin, which means, for cosmonauts,” he said. “So I was going back and forth to Moscow. … I trained soldiers who wanted to become astronauts. For years they have to stay in a room, separated, and so on. It was quite a different life, but interesting.”
How did all of this time-consuming and stressful work impact his family life?
“I have a very charming lady,” Dr. Freilinger smiles when referring to his Swiss-born wife. “The three children grew up in Vienna. [And even so] I went Africa, to Asia, to America, to South America, all these countries that asked me to come and do some work.” Freilinger admitted later, once again smiling, that his family does not always know where he goes and what he does exactly. But it is naturally helpful to have a stable home base, in all events.
The 1980s were a turning point in the life and work of Gerhard Freilinger.
“Before Iraq was Iran,” he recalls. “When I came back from doing war surgery, I was asked here in Vienna if I would take heavy cases from the Iran-Iraq conflict [of 1980-1988]. … The first Iranian cases were reconstructive cases. But then the Iranians found out that I also deal with burn cases. … So they came, I was asked to the airport. And what I saw was patients who couldn’t breathe, who had erosions, but no burns directly – the first cases of poison gas. So it was misinformation, and I became involved in these toxicological burns and poison gas, [it being] first not so obvious, but then it went on.”
He was among the very first in the world to deal with such cases, which were initially very mysterious. “I didn’t know, they didn’t tell me. So, very strange. … [My colleague asked,] ‘What is going on?’ and I said I don’t know. I don’t know exactly what happened. These cases came … but they were not dying due to skin lesions, but they were dying due to lung diseases. They cannot speak, they cannot breathe anymore, they are heavily, heavily damaged inside. So it was very strange, very strange.”
“It was misinformation,” Freilinger emphasizes once again that the cases were presented as burns, and not as mustard gas. “Or they didn’t want to tell us, or they knew and did not know exactly what it was.”
Throughout the 1980s, Freilinger built a reputation for his expertise in burns and in treating poison gas and co-operating with other physicians from Europe. Starting with Iranian patients, the work unfortunately took on a larger scale with Iraqi Kurdistan, which witnessed one of the most horrific events of the twentieth century. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds, by various estimates, were systematically targeted in Iraq over the course of decades, most notably with the Anfal campaign of the late 1980s, which included the use of chemical weapons on the town of Halabja in 1988.
On the 16th of March that year, 5,000 were killed and twice as many were injured in what is referred to as the largest-scale attack on a civilian population in history. To this day, the people of the area suffer from health issues, including birth defects. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Halabja massacre, recognized at last as an act of genocide by the Iraqi High Criminal Court in 2010.
“These cases that came from Halabja … [they did not need plastic surgery] because there was no deep burn,” Freilinger recalls. “Those were inside: the lung, the kidneys, all the intestines, everything was poisoned.”
He even had to make arrangements for increased bed space at a private hospital due to high demand. One of the cases he treated back then-a twelve-year-old boy survived and stayed on in Vienna. The two did not stay in touch. And then, in 2006, much to Freilinger’s surprise, a young adult approached him, telling him that he had saved his life. Thus, did the good doctor rekindle his acquaintance with the Kurdish people and visit Kurdistan on a few occasions afterwards. He has since then continued to share his experiences at numerous Kurdish events throughout Europe.
What drew him to take on this kind of work?
“I was always a very curious fellow,” Freilinger says. “I wanted to see what is really going on. I asked Iranians … please take me to Iran, I would like to see what is going on there. And everybody said, ‘For Heaven’s sake, he goes to Iran, and now, [works] with these cases here. He is completely crazy!’ I said I am not crazy, I’d like to know what is going on. So they brought me there.” Dr. Freilinger witnessed first- hand the harrowing effects of the use of poison gas in war, going on to formally document and report what he saw, alongside other fact-finding missions from other countries. He did the same in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan as well, visiting Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Halabja. Many years later he testified against the Ba’ath regime after the fall of Saddam in 2003.
Freilinger has a strong sense of the long-term. He repeats that he has devoted more than half of his life to his work-“And it’s not ending,” he does not forget to add. But even today, he continues to think about the future, much concerned about what events in Iraq, and especially Syria, may have in store.
“[All this work] is a little bit too much because it is such a long period, you know. It went on from 1980, 1984, 1988, up until now. And there is no end,” Dr. Freilinger warned. “We don’t know what there will be tomorrow. We don’t know what will go on in Baghdad, and what will go on in this area where they have this poison. We know it, they can use it.” Freilinger suspects that regimes that are backed up against a wall may take the extreme step of using these unconventional weapons. “So this is the reason that we are living in a very strange time period, because the danger that it will be inflamed again could happen.”
Awareness about this issue is a key element according to him. “But it should be [conveyed] to the outside world [beyond the region], to many people who are not aware that the danger is so great. We don’t know what Syria will do tomorrow,” Freilinger repeated, speculating that small amounts of poison gas may have already been used over the course of that country’s civil war.
When asked about how to deal with mass atrocities and genocide, Freilinger was thoughtful and somewhat hesitant. “Who should judge?” he asked, only emphasizing that the situation is pressing and dangerous even now in Iraq and Syria. “It is an unsolved question.”
He recalled witnessing immense destruction carried out by the Americans in Vietnam: “I have seen it. I was flying with a big plane over a jungle that was completely burnt. Awful. I was going up to Vientiane and flew from Saigon up there, and saw these huge areas that were completely damaged. … This is a situation worldwide which is unsolved. Like now, for me, Syria is a very, very difficult situation. Very, very dangerous.”
Freilinger also undertook investigations on poison gas as far away as Namibia. He reminisces over his life and times in all: “I have nothing to hide. I like to offer what I have seen and what I have done. … Now I am an old man, but my soul is young. […] This story is so long and so involving beyond everything, you know, so that you might say, you might think it a little bit Wirrwarr. But it is not-it is my life. But it is not ended. We don’t know what will be tomorrow.”