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Baghdad hospitals still under stress

[Iraq] Basra Hospital.
Tahsin Ahmad tends to his brother Amir (Mike White )

From his hospital bed overlooking the Tigris river, 27-year-old Muhammad speaks with a softness that belies how his life has been tragically changed in the weeks of war in Baghdad.

On 7 April, his wife, Sahar, went into labour with the child they had been waiting five years for. From their home on the outskirts of Baghdad, they went to a local health clinic, but complications with the birth resulted in their being transferred by ambulance to a hospital in the city centre with better facilities.

Nearing the Yarmuk Teaching Hospital, they encountered shooting. The clearly marked ambulance with its light flashing slowed down, but was then hit by a rocket, setting it on fire. Muhammad was thrown clear, but because both his legs were shattered in the process, he could not reach his wife, who was screaming to be freed from the wreckage.

The shooting continued for three hours, trapping the victims until some Iraqi civilians crawled to them and managed to get them to hospital. For Sahar, however, it was too late, and despite efforts by doctors to save the child, he also died.

Because of the fighting, Muhammad was transferred to Karkh Hospital. But two days later, looters rampaged through the wards, doctors fled, and Muhammad had to be rescued by relatives. By the time they got him to Baghdad's Shahid Adnan Hospital, there was nothing doctors could do for his legs, and both were amputated from above the knee.

One hand is also seriously damaged, with a finger lost to a bullet. With flies covering his bloodstained bedsheet and bandaged stumps, Muhammad says it is impossible to think about the future. "There is a God that will look after my situation," he said.

Muhammad is just one of thousands of horrifically injured Iraqis who still remain in hospitals throughout the country. And even though the war is officially over, the pressure on the doctors caring for them has not let up.

In Yarmuk Hospital, a casualty specialist, Dr Riyad Qubcoy, rubs his eyes and leans his head on his fist. Since war broke out on 20 March, he has worked at least 18 hours a day - every day. Sometimes he had been 24 hours on the go before getting a rest, he said.

The looting which hit the hospital on 9 and 10 April has made his job that much harder. "They stole everything - equipment, beds, air conditioning, laboratory instruments - things that couldn't be used anywhere else."

His colleague, an orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Muhammad al-Musawi, told IRIN that the hospital had been hit by shells twice, the first killing three patients and wrecking many rooms.

At the height of the war, the hospital was receiving 100 patients an hour. Resources were so stretched that he had to amputate one Iraqi soldier's arm without anaesthetic in the emergency room. Perhaps the saddest moment for him was having to bury in the hospital garden four premature babies who could not be transferred to a more specialised hospital due to the fighting.

He has slept at the hospital since the war began, unable to leave because of the huge workload. "If I go to see my family and my home, who treats the people? I love my job and I want to save the lives of patients as much as possible." But his task is much harder due to shortages of equipment.

This means he has to perform some operations using "unscientific methods", as he describes it. He said the 2,000-bed hospital desperately needed more electricity, drugs, water, instruments - and doctors. Many medical staff had not returned to work - because they could not travel, were concerned about security or were not getting paid.

Without significant help from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Al-Musawi said it would have been virtually impossible to carry on. Many other aid agencies had visited the hospital and promised help, but so far it had only been the Red Cross that had been helping them, he said.

Shahid Adnan Hospital escaped looting, but doctors are still overworked and unpaid. A thoracic surgeon, Dr Husayn Zubaydi, said a shortage of staff was a major problem, as was reliable electricity. "It is not so easy to operate as a doctor," he noted.

He was still receiving many victims with bullet wounds, most likely from fighting between looters. Dr Hamid Ahmad, an orthopaedic specialist, said the hospital was now able to perform about 50 operations a day. However, getting staff back to the hospital was hampering their work, and because of this the outpatients department had only reopened on Saturday for the first time.

In a nearby ward, two-year-old Muhammad Sabbar is a reminder that the war may be over, but the Iraqi people and their health system will be dealing with the cost for a long time yet. Whimpering on his bed, Muhammad clutches four vials of medicine he will be injected with.

His left arm is bandaged, but this cannot hide the fact that it is swollen to three times its normal size. Three weeks ago a bomb hit his home, badly wounding his arm, which later became infected. For the last eight days he has been in hospital, his face reflecting his misery.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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