Hundreds of people are turning up every day at the only hospital in the southern port of Umm Qasr in the hope of being treated by foreign doctors. But the hospital has only 12 beds, and the five permanent local "doctors" working there are in fact students in their third and fourth years of medical school.
"There is no hygiene of any kind, no basic facilities, no fully trained medical staff, no operating theatre, no fridge - there is just nothing there," said Mark Cockburn, a paramedic with Rescue Net - a division of the Australian Relief and Mercy Services. "It’s little more than a first aid station."
The emergency section of the two-ward hospital was not much better, he added. "There’s a small square room with one area for men, one for women, three beds, a tiny bench, an oxygen bottle, and that’s it."
Umm Qasr has a population of 10,000, but workers in the hospital estimate they are currently catering for about 45,000 - 20,000 from outlying districts and thousands more who have migrated to the town since the end of the war.
"They come to the hospital from Basra, Nasiriyah, Az-Zubayr and even as far away as Baghdad, because they heard there were foreign doctors here," said Cockburn. Many of them arrived with chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, bone conditions and leukemia in the hope of treatment - or getting out of Iraq to neighbouring Kuwait. "People think if they go to the next town, they’ll get something better than at home," he said.
A Spanish hospital ship, the Galicia, which is docked in the port, takes some emergencies on board to its intensive-care unit and two operating theatres, and sends doctors to the hospital for two hours each day. But without translators or a shared language, communication with Arabic-speaking patients is difficult. The Kuwaiti government also sends a team of four specialists to the hospital on Wednesdays and Sundays.
But they cannot cope with the 200 and 300 people lining up outside the hospital every morning, before it even opens. Spanish guards stand behind the door to control the crowd. When they open up, "you see a sea of human faces and hands, they stand at the door screaming at you", said Cockburn. Then he and his colleagues have the unenviable task of deciding whom they can help and whom to turn away.
Between 40 and 50 percent of the prospective patients are turned away, told to go home, or to another city with better facilities. The lucky ones are allowed in, many of them with war wounds, or just seeking treatment for everyday accidents. "The waiting area gets so packed you have to go out of the back door to re-enter through the front. You have people begging you to see them," he said.
Rescue Net is trying to develop a referral system to the much bigger and better-equipped medical facilities in Basra, about 75 km away, but for the moment it is not up and running. "We tell them they have to go back to Basra, but they say they have already been there, and there is nothing there for them," Cockburn said.
Meanwhile, those who can be attended to in Umm Qasr hospital are treated, but often without painkillers. "Doing basic surgery, the patients have to grit their teeth, or put a piece of cloth in their mouths to bite on," he said. "When you take the bandages off, the flies are all over the wounds."
But at least the electricity is back, and water is being delivered by the United Nations Children’s Fund. Until two weeks ago, when someone took a sheet off a corpse, it was given directly to the next patient, due to a lack of water. "We’d come out of the hospital covered in blood and pus, and there was no water to wash in," said Cockburn.
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