Amir Khalil, veterinarian helping animal victims of war

From the martyred bears of Bulgaria to the abandoned lions of Saddam Hussein, he saves animals in the worst areas of the planet.

When he was a child, Amir Khalil had promised his mother to become a monk if God sent him a sign. “Heaven did not remain silent, but I did not keep my word”, smiles today this elegant man, 57 years old. Amir grew up on the edge of the beautiful Al-Fayoum oasis, 70 kilometers from Cairo. Son of a very pious Egyptian Coptic family, he will never lose his faith but it is the American series “Daktari” which will be his revelation. “Kid, I didn’t miss any episodes. My brothers wanted to be Superman; I dreamed of saving elephants and lions from the wickedness of men. As far back as I can remember, I have always seen in animals the quintessence of innocence. Human or non-human animal: kindness makes no difference. When I saw the other kids in the neighborhood having fun throwing stones at stray dogs and cats, I told myself that they would later become assassins. »

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Brilliant studies at Cairo University, veterinarian diploma obtained at 23 years old. “In Egypt, at that time, it was frowned upon. You were told: “You are a doctor for donkeys!” On the other hand, I was the pride of my father, a pharmacist, from a very poor family. The young man is so gifted in surgery that he passes the prestigious competition at the University of Edinburgh, where he will never go. “My mother had asked me to stop over in Vienna to check that my sister’s future husband was a suitable man. I reassured her, and then I met the woman of my life. So I stayed in Austria. Three daughters were born, Amir forged a European-style existence for himself, but there was no question for him of making a comfortable career as a veto. In 1992, he knocked on the door of a small association, Four Paws (Four Paws), which published a curious announcement: “Recruiting veterinarians to castrate dogs in Romania. »

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Upon his arrival in Bucharest, Amir understands the magnitude of the mission. Since Ceausescu and the forced urbanization, the populations left the campaigns to pile up in buildings, and the animals remained at the door. Result: the dogs began to swarm to the point that they are thousands to roam. Believing to eradicate the problem, the town hall of Bucharest organizes collections and makes them disappear, still alive, in baths of sulfuric acid. The effectiveness of cruelty has its limits: at the rate at which dogs reproduce, even barbarism is overcome. Amir takes matters into his own hands. The only ethical and effective solution: initiate a sterilization campaign. And, as with this stubborn Amir, “no” is never an answer, he manages to convince the authorities to abolish their medieval practices, obtains financial support from the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, then transforms an old bus into a clinic. mobile veterinarian. Over 100,000 dogs are saved. First victory. Four Paws appoints Amir Director of Projects. From then on, he chained rescues all over the world.

To place the evacuated animals, Amir built up a network of benefactors, including Princess Alia of Jordan

“It all starts with whistleblowers who contact the association. I check the information and if no one has the solution, I go. Even if it means risking his life. In 1998, in Kosovo, he left to take care of farm animals abandoned by their owners. On the road between two villages, a guy shoots five people, points his gun at Amir’s head and then decides to let him go. “I understood that I was stupid, one does not enter a war zone without preparing for it. When he returns, he heads for Bulgaria to put an end to an old tradition, that of the dancing bears. The apprenticeship consists of placing the future dancer, that is to say the teddy bear, on hot embers. While he writhes in pain, the Gypsies play a fiddle tune. Thus, each time he hears the instrument sound, the plantigrade will stand up, by reflex. Amir deploys his negotiating skills, Brigitte Bardot floods the Bulgarian president with mail. In the end, 24 bears, the last in the country, are released. “They learned to live again at the Belitsa sanctuary, which we created with the Bardot Foundation 200 kilometers from Sofia. Since then, the cruel attraction has been banned.

At ease everywhere, speaking six languages, the Austro-Egyptian veterinarian jumps from one plane to another. When the association learns that a nightclub owner in Romania is showing off lion cubs, Amir enters his establishment disguised as an Arab sheikh: he claims to want to buy the beasts for his girlfriend. At the time of concluding the transaction, the police appear and confiscate them. Since then, they have been enjoying their freedom in South Africa.
Then impossible missions become his specialty. Baghdad, summer 2003. Objective: deliver animals from Saddam Hussein’s private zoo. They were 650, they are now only twenty. “You want that bastard’s animals to stop suffering?” That’s the only way,” an American official told him, handing him revolver bullets. After hours of talks, he crosses the city, under the bombardments, provides emergency care, organizes himself to find food and finally manages to put his proteges in safety. Surprise: in the cellars of the presidential palace, he discovers nine lions that this sadist Oudaï Hussein, eldest son of the raïs, abandoned while fleeing. In Iraq, Amir invented a new profession: war veterinarian.

He fights on all fronts. In Libya, where he organizes the maintenance of the 700 animals in the Tripoli zoo. In the Gaza Strip, where he puts an end to the abominations of the Khan Younis zoo. The critters were exhibited in the middle of the mummified corpses of their congeners. From this open-air cemetery, only fifteen animals survived. Israel and Hamas, the eternal enemies, even agree to open their border to let the strange Ark of Noah pass. “That’s when I realized the universal power of animals. “Apocalyptic vision again, in 2017, when it is necessary to evacuate the lion Simba and the bear Lula, the miracles of the abandoned zoo of Mosul. It will take more than a week of waiting at the border, in the middle of a dodger and without a stock of food, to prove that Simba and Lula were not trained by Daesh. “At the beginning, the soldiers made fun of us, until a general brought us chickens to feed the bear. By coming to see the lion, orphan children have found their smiles. For two days, the war stopped. The same year, a resident of Aleppo, in Syria, alerted him to the appalling state of the Magic World park, where a dozen animals still languish. Twenty-seven checkpoints to pass, Islamic State snipers to avoid. Suicidal. Amir is not discouraged. He convinces Turkey to let him pass and thwarts the traps set by Daesh by sending two convoys – one of which is empty – to cover their tracks. “Amir Khalil does not know failure because he never gives up,” notes Arnaud de Senilhes, author of “Magic World”, a moving book devoted to the Syrian epic.

From the start, it was supported by the Brigitte Bardot Foundation

The rest of the warrior ? “An air of Sinatra, a good whiskey and a cigar. In order not to frighten his family, Amir never revealed the details of his profession. “It created a wall, he regrets. My wife and I ended up separating. “Isn’t he afraid for his life and that of his teams? “In the field, we are a maximum of five people, with no political or religious affiliation. We are determined and prepared for all scenarios. Even if it is often necessary to improvise, each rescue is carried out like a war operation, it requires specific training and weeks of organization. It is necessary to recruit fixers, obtain the financial means and, above all, know where to place the animals once evacuated. To do this, Amir has built up a network of benefactors. Among them, Princess Alia, elder sister of King Abdullah II of Jordan. Together they founded forty shrines in the country. Gardens of Eden where animals recover their physical and mental health. “Like humans, they are traumatized by the war and remember all the atrocities. It takes them months, sometimes years, to realize that they are now safe. But if a helicopter flies over the sanctuary, then they go mad and seek to hide, believing that a flurry of bullets or a bombardment will come again. »

Soon Amir Khalil will be in Sudan. Why persist in saving animals in the worst areas of the planet and squander tons of dollars on them? “Because they are prisoners in the heart of conflicts that they cannot understand. To save them is to light a candle in the night. The eleven wild beasts and the two surviving dogs of the Syrian Magic World were the ambassadors of hope. People who were fighting each other laid down their weapons to help us transport the cages and let them through the combat zones. They regained, for a moment, their humanity. Amir also thinks back to this Israeli soldier who, by dint of meeting him in the heart of the chaos, ended up confessing to him: “Instead of shooting at people, I would like to follow you. “The courage of compassion, “that’s the real value of what I do,” confides the war veterinarian. In humans, this is called a hero.
“Magic World”, by Arnaud de Senilhes, ed. Télémaque, 246 pages, 19 euros.

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