Refugees fleeing along the River Zaraf in Old Fangak, South Sudan. Pen and Sword History /

By Tom Dare

THE INCREDIBLE story of a Red Cross doctor who worked in war zones, natural disaster zones and areas of extreme violence over the course of a 35-year career has been told in a new book, giving a rare insight into the work of one of the international community’s most vital organisations.

The author in Grozny, Chechyna, with a shelled tower block behind him. Pen and Sword History /


Images from ‘Memoirs of a Red Cross Doctor: Better to Light a Candle’ by Frank Ryding show the author and former doctor in the middle of surgery as he attempts to extract a machine gun bullet from a patient’s arm, while another shot shows him holding a small Sudanese child he had helped to get better after she was dragged from her hut by a lion.

Further images from the book show Frank posing next to his Red Cross truck in front of the shell of a former apartment building in Grozny, Chechyna, with a further picture showing him posing for a photo with armed guards outside a hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia.

The author, right, with ICRC surgical team Sarah and Harald, Muzaffarabad. Pen and Sword History /


During his time working for the International Red Cross, Frank has worked all over the world, from the ‘killing field’ era of Cambodia, to Afghanistan, Chechnya, Somalia, Pakistan and Sudan.

But he says that, despite the fact that each new country presented its own unique set of challenges, there is one assignment that sticks with him more than the others.

The author inserting a spinal anaesthetic in Lokichokio, Kenya. Pen and Sword History /


“Each of the places I’ve worked in has had a great impact on me, but Somalia will always be with me,” he said.

“The violence and true anarchy of the country was very stressful for myself and the team I was with. It was a very risky existence and we had some fatalities and injuries. Somalia had and still has a hopelessness about it and it’s a challenge to bring about any significant improvement to the lives of the poor Somalis trapped there.

The author with a small Sudanese child, Panda, a lion-attack victim who had been treated at the hospital in Lokichokio, Kenya. Pen and Sword History /


“It was a minor incident that I remember most. Our hospital in Berbera was attacked by shellfire, gunfire and marauding gangs of looters. I was sheltering under an operating table from the shells falling around us. I’d had enough, I was on the point of giving up and, if I survived, calling it a day with the Red Cross.

“I felt we were achieving so very little, even though we’d worked hard operating on the never-ending stream of wounded people. It was an almost insignificant number of victims compared to the hundreds of thousands of casualties in the country around us which we could never hope to help. What on earth was the use of us being there? Then I saw some graffiti, a proverb, over the door of the operating room. It said, “It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness”. It suddenly made everything clearer. I carried on and in the following years it was often the motivation that kept me going.

The author with armed guards outside the Martini Hospital, Mogadishu. Pen and Sword History /


“That’s the reason that it was the subtitle for my book “Better to Light a Candle”.

Having survived his many ordeals Frank says he counts himself lucky to live in a country with peace, stability and universal healthcare, something which he never takes for granted today.


Sleeping arrangements at the Old Fangak hospital, South Sudan. Pen and Sword History /


But what would he say to those who don’t fully understand the work of the Red Cross, or who don’t know what’s going on in countless humanitarian crisis’ around the world?

“I’d say, read my book,” he says.

Extracting a machine-gun bullet from an arm in Afghanistan. Pen and Sword History /


“I’ve tried to give a balanced account of what we do and what we experience. At least hopefully we leave the places in a bit better condition than we found them.

“We’re not saints, we make mistakes, myself as much as anyone – sometimes embarrassing. I’ve seen heroism, cruelty, chaos and compassion, the heart-rending and the heart-warming and the highest vision of the human spirit.

A ward at the Tap Prik hospital in Cambodia. Pen and Sword History /


“I’d say to people that, compared to most of the rest of the world, we are in a very privileged and fortunate position and we should treasure it and make full use of it while we can, and at the same time perhaps spare a thought for those people who can’t.

Memoirs of a Red Cross Doctor: Better to Light a Candle by Frank Ryding is published by Pen and Sword History, and can be purchased here:,204,203,200_QL70_&dpSrc=srch