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Mental hospital forced to start rebuilding

[Iraq] Al-Qurna Hospital Stripped Bare.
The mental hospital has been stripped bare and many patients are unaccounted for (Mike White)

Baghdad's only public mental hospital is struggling to operate in the wake of the country’s recent war. Soon after American troops entered Baghdad, the Al-Rashad Teaching Mental Hospital in the south of the city was invaded by looters, who stripped the complex and allowed more than half the 1,020 patients to escape.

Its director, Dr Amir Hilw, said Al-Rashad was the only hospital in Iraq for chronic mentally ill patients. In the last four years it had undergone extensive improvements and was up to Western standards. But on the evening of 8 April all that changed when looters with knives and sticks forced their way past guards and began taking anything they could move.

American forces briefly came to protect the facility, but then they left, this was followed by more than three days of looting. Hilw desperately tried to persuade the thieves to leave the facility. "I tried to explain to them that this was not a government station or a rocket factory - it is a hospital and there are very poor people from all of Iraq and they are our families and our relatives and please go away."

But, he said, they tried to stab him and pushed their way past. Facilities such as the kitchen and laundry were completely wrecked, as well as patient areas and rehabilitation rooms. Food, medicine, wiring, lights, furniture, air conditioning and beds were all stolen.

Worse, about 600 patients fled from the hospital, including 100 from a secure psychiatric ward, some of whom could be considered dangerous. While some patients had come back, Hilw said he was worried about those who were now not receiving medication and treatment. Even those patients who had remained were badly upset by the events.

"Some of them went into relapse. It is a stressful situation even for normal people." He believed most of the escaped patients would have returned to their families and said the reality was that because of the damage, the hospital was only able to accommodate a limited number of patients who had nowhere else to go.

Of the seven patient units normally working only two are now able to operate. Initially, the staff that remained had to cook on open fires in wards to provide food for the remaining patients. With the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the totally destroyed kitchen is now running again.

But the looting has not ended. Large holes in the perimeter walls are being used at night by looters who are still threatening the facility. Windows, replaced by the ICRC two weeks ago, were again stolen within a day. Hilw, who has worked at the hospital for 23 years, admits he initially felt "very depressed, tired and hopeless - we couldn’t do anything for the people. But now I want to start again and to build this hospital and progress it more than it was before."

A hospital psychiatrist, Dr Sa'd Mahdi, said he hoped the facility would be running again properly by the end of May: "We are disappointed but hopeful." In the rehabilitation facility, where patients used to enjoy music, painting, drawing, sewing and handiwork, the rooms are completely bare, with even the light switches gone. Doors were ripped off and stolen and five of the hospital’s 10 vehicles were stolen.

One of the patients, Hagop Ouzouaian, said he had been at the gate when the looters broke in and starting smashing and stealing things. Many of his friends had decided to leave because they felt they were suddenly free. "I was very frightened and afraid of the attack, but stayed at the hospital because we have no place to go."

The ICRC’s director of psychiatric programmes, Olaf Rosset, speaking in Baghdad, said his organisation had worked to improve the hospital for the last three years and when he left it before the war it was of a European standard. His organisation would do everything it could to re-establish the hospital. "I have to look at this in an optimistic way. We just have to get on."

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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