Monday, July 23, 2001

"I don't need a big car; I don't need a big house. What
I need is, I need to have a feeling that I can make a
difference in peoples' lives," said Dr. Gunther Hintz,
president and founder of Medicorps.

Dr. Gunther Hintz,
the medicine man

A Honolulu plastic surgeon has
devoted himself to helping
impoverished Philippine villagers

By B.J. Reyes

Touring a refugee camp on the southern Philippine island of Jolo, where fighting between the Philippine government and Muslim insurgent groups has displaced villagers by the thousands, Dr. Gunther Hintz knows that he can only do so much to help.

But sometimes, a little help is all that's needed.

"You can do good just by being there ... by telling them that the world cares," says Hintz. "Sometimes you can't physically help, but you can help spiritually and emotionally."

Hintz helps in a couple of ways.

As president and founder of Medicorps, a nonprofit volunteer organization, he leads small groups of medical missions to impoverished countries to teach medical technology and new techniques to the local population.

In recent years he has added documentary filmmaking to his resume, giving him the opportunity to open up poverty-stricken, unglamorous corners of the world to a television audience.

Programs he has produced about a medical mission to the Philippine province of Samar already have aired on 'Olelo, Oahu's community access channel. A project on the problems facing the war-ravaged southern regions of Zamboanga and Jolo is expected to be completed in a few weeks.

"I see a role for Medicorps and other NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) to go into these areas and to say, 'Look, you do have a problem over here, address it,'" he says. "Otherwise, you will get more and more violence and more and more suffering of the people."

He considers this particularly true of Mindanao in the southern Philippines, where military clashes, kidnappings and other violence connected to insurgent Muslim groups make headlines on a regular basis.

Art Mindanao is a poor, resource-rich group of islands where fighting has killed more than 120,000 people since the 1970s. Over time, Muslim rebels have split into several different groups, ranging from the radical Abu Sayyaf, who say they are battling for a separate homeland, to larger Muslim guerrilla groups that have made peace with the government or are in the process of doing so.

The Abu Sayyaf still is holding about 20 hostages -- including two Americans -- since it raided a beach resort off the southwestern island of Palawan on May 27, the group's second major hostage-taking in a year. A third American kidnapped from the resort is believed to have been killed.

Meanwhile, the fight continues against the rebels, considered bandits by the government. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared war on the insurgents last month. Her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, had launched an offensive against the rebels in the fall.

Hintz and co-producer John Feil have seen firsthand the effect of the government's war.

In December, shortly after a major clash, the pair traveled to the southern province of Zamboanga to scout the region for a possible medical mission. After meeting with Mayor Maria Clara Lobregat, they were given access, along with a British journalist, to a refugee camp in Talipao on the nearby Muslim-dominated island of Jolo.

There they met with military officials including Col. Romeo Tolentino, commander of a Philippine military task force on Jolo. They also spent time among the villagers, talking with the community leaders and filming footage from the camp.

"What we're trying to do with the program is not only medical, but it's also social," says Feil, a pharmacist at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center. "We're trying to show what is going on in these countries and how people are living, the disparities between the rich and the poor, and a little bit about the history."

Dr. Gunther Hintz

Age: 56
Residence: Nuuanu
Background: Plastic surgeon. He moved to Hawaii in 1977 and gave up private practice in 1987.
Organization: Founded Medicorps in 1984 as a nonprofit volunteer organization that conducts medical missions to impoverished countries, with a focus on teaching medical technology and new techniques to the local population.
Web site:
Quote: "The wonderful thing is, you don't have any material motives in mind, so you can totally concentrate on what you like to do. ... So long as I can pay my rent and as long as I can move around, that's fine."

In the refugee camp, they spoke with the community's head man to try and get a handle on the problems facing the displaced villagers.

The documentary footage shows the man surrounded by the members of his community amid other telling signs that these are a displaced people -- groups of children playing with homemade toys, overcrowded clotheslines, communal cooking. Others peer out from behind makeshift doors and fences in the distance to see what has interrupted the usual whirring and rumbling that accompany a military operation.

"The problem is, it's very difficult to get good interviews," Hintz said. "When the military surrounds them, they're not quite as forthcoming."

But such barriers broke down once many of the villagers realized that Hintz and Feil hope to bring some help to the community, either by way of a medical mission or more public attention to their plight.

"There is a lot of good will, still, toward Americans," Hintz said. "There's more so the hope that some other country will intervene and will help them out of their political state and make their lives better, because basically, they don't want to fight. They don't want to be in that position.

"They want to live a regular life like the rest of us."

Serafin Colmenares, an Aiea resident and former professor at Mindanao State University, calls their work commendable.

"Medical missions like this are very important in areas like Zamboanga and Jolo because of the widespread destruction and the displacement of people in these areas," Colmenares said in an e-mail. "Not only are people there suffering from poverty, but they also face disease and other health-related problems spawned by the so-called Mindanao conflict."

He added that the documentary work that Hintz and Feil do also is important to "give a human face to what is going on.

"By showing what is actually happening -- not just statistics and words -- there will be a stronger and more dramatic impact on people who are hundreds of miles away and far removed from the scene."

Hintz, a plastic surgeon who gave up private practice in 1987, says he hopes others will take notice.

"If you watch the situation carefully," he says, "you will see that sooner or later, the lack of attention, the lack of willingness to help or to intervene, will come right back on your doorstep, and now suddenly you have a situation where Americans are taken hostage.

"It's predictable."

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