Iraq after the firestorm

May 29 2003 | by

AS WE APPROACH Baghdad thick clouds of black smoke rise above the city and the smell of burning and raw sewage hits me. Evidence of the battle for Baghdad still lies everywhere, flattened civilian cars burnt out and riddled with bullets, lorries shot at and looted, destroyed armoured carriers, undamaged anti-aircraft guns. Packs of dogs roam the streets, women and children emerge from the burning rubbish and smoke, black marketeers sell petrol from plastic containers alongside the long queues of cars at petrol stations.

The people of Baghdad look desperate, afraid and defensive, ready to attack. On every street corner, US troops are on the alert while columns of tanks and armoured carriers drive through the city. Every ministry, school and hospital has either been looted or set on fire.


Central Children’s Hospital


I hear disturbing reports about the conditions in Central Children’s Hospital in Baghdad and decide to visit it. In the emergency ward mothers and children are sitting on beds, chairs or just standing, looking and waiting. I am struck by the sadness of their expressions.

One of the mothers starts screaming for help, her child is very ill, they take her to a small emergency room where two nurses tell the mother her baby has died but they do everything to try to revive her. The mother starts pulling her hair out in desperation. The father insists that their child is not dead so they take her to a bed where they place an oxygen mask over her face. Soon after a doctor arrives who confirms that she has died. The father takes the child in his arms and looks directly into my face and shouts, “Your Bush is finishing what Saddam started.” The father wraps the child tenderly in a cloth and the family leave the emergency ward.

The doctors tell me that four days ago they ran out of oxygen and were forced to send children to other hospitals, some had died on the way. On the first floor the wards are divided into four by curtains with four beds in each section, this floor is for people who can afford to pay. There is one child on each bed surrounded by members of the family. Most have serious illnesses such as leukaemia, heart problems, meningitis, diarrhoea and undiagnosed illnesses including suspected cases of cholera.

On the second floor the situation is completely different. Each ward has about twelve beds with one or two or even three children on each bed with their mothers and families around them. The conditions are appalling, and children with different contagious diseases are lying next to each other on plastic mattresses without sheets. At midday family members bring some food for the mothers and children, they spread out a tablecloth on the floor and share the food with their families and with mothers who are alone.

Mothers were telling me their stories. One mother had already lost two children and her last child is critically ill. Another mother with a child suffering from black fever tells me she has a twelve-year-old daughter at home who suffered serious burns from scalding water and her arms are stuck to her body. She wants to take her abroad to be operated on to give her the chance of living a normal life.


Black fever


The pharmacist, Hala Karim Saal, explains that there are no medicines left in the hospital. She gives me a list of medicines they need desperately, 20,000 units of Pentostam, Indiral ampoules, Panatol ampoules, Lominal ampoules, Tagamate ampoules, 6mp Tablets ‘Chemotherapy’,+6 Mercuptopurine, 6TG Thioguanine, Factor 8, Microdrip and general chemo items for cancer. With this list I go to talk to the US officer in charge of security at the hospital, Lt Timothy T Wyant, PL, 1st Plt, A Co. He writes a note in my notebook confirming that I am a certified journalist and tells me to speak to Captain Boone at the Civil Affairs office based in Saddam’s former Presidential Palace.

At the Civil Affairs office I explain that I want to see Captain Boone to inform him of the desperate situation at the Children’s Hospital, but the officer at the main entrance refuses to allow me to see him. He knows some children are dying but it is not yet amber. When I ask him how many children have to die before it is considered amber, he asks me to leave.

Sabine Wartha, Head of Emergency Department of Caritas Austria comments, “When we entered the Central Children’s Hospital in Baghdad, we were surrounded by parents, desperate parents who asked us to help their children. Wherever we looked, we saw babies, small children, children who were lying unconscious in bed without sheets, without proper treatment as there are no medicines or parents cannot afford the treatment. We were shocked, we felt horror knowing that by the end of our mission in three days some of those little babies will not have survived.”

Dr Wolfgang Aichelburg, the medical adviser for Caritas Austria affirmed, “I have done lots of missions in my life and have seen so much misery in different countries around the world, but I have never seen such a dramatic situation before.”

I returned to the hospital with Guy Hovey from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). One of the doctors told us that they were passing through a crisis, there was an alarming rise in cases of Kala Azar (black fever) which causes distension of the liver, fever, vomiting, diarrhoea and death. “It used to be a rural disease but has now spread to Baghdad,” Hala Karim Saal told us. The hospital has not been able to secure, not even on the black market, supplies of Pentostam which when administered for twenty one days cure the illness. The doctors decided to distribute the final doses equally among the children, only three doses per child were left, and sent them home hoping that more supplies would arrive soon. Medical staff explained that they had seen hundreds of cases in the last two weeks. Doctors couldn’t say how many children had died, some parents seeing that the hospital could do nothing for their children took them home to die.

Dr Eaman Tariq Al Gebory came to work as a volunteer from Egypt. She thought that it would be a situation where some children were injured but she never imagined that so many would be injured and killed. It was very painful to see that the medical staff’s efforts were wasted because of the lack of medicines. Mothers and children arrive at the hospital very weak from lack of food, and diarrhoea from the contaminated water, a weak child and unclean water are a lethal combination.


Mass graves


On the outskirts of Baghdad at the junction on the motorway to Karbala one of the battles for Baghdad took place. The flyover was used as an exercise field by US soldiers who shot at civilians trying to cross the motorway. You can smell decomposing human flesh rising from the graves interspersed between burnt and blown up military lorries and civilian cars. The owner of the mechanics workshop opposite tells me what happened. “When the Americans attacked, hundreds of young soldiers and civilians were killed. Helicopters even shot at those who had given themselves up or were injured, they all died. The place was covered in bodies and body parts, we gathered them together and placed them in graves by the roadside. Families keep coming and opening the graves looking for their missing loved ones.”

Another mass grave lies outside Al Rashid Military Camp next to the motorway. Palm branches mark the fresh graves of soldiers and civilians who died in the military camp and surrounding area. An empty coffin, shoes and uniforms with dried blood, a shovel for the families who are coming to open the graves. How many died and their identity, nobody knows. What happened to the prisoners captured by US military forces, only rumours and conjecture. Prisoners who were freed from the military camps speak of days and nights of interrogation and torture. Human rights organisations protest timidly about the treatment of prisoners.


Unidentified bodies


On farmland in Al-Mahawil at Al Hilla three miles from the main road to ancient Babylon they found the remains of thousands of people killed by the regime of Saddam Hussein. At 9.30 am the mechanical digger is at work. Cars are travelling in the opposite direction with coffins on the roofs. After walking a few hundred metres I reach the site situated on elevated terrain. In the vastness of the space the smell and the heat are so harsh they envelop me completely.

People are arriving from all over Iraq to see if one of their loved ones is here. They are moving around the digger in a daze, racing from one hole to the next, from remains to remains, looking into white plastic bags of unidentified bodies left in a row, twenty four in one place, sixty seven, twenty more and so on. Two US soldiers are filming and other soldiers guard the site.

When a body appears in the sand, a mother raises her hands in desperation, others sit quietly looking in the distance. Some start fighting over remains when they think it is their relative from details in the clothes, even the colour of their shoes is in their memory. Some are not identified by anyone so the remains are placed in plastic bags.

They keep telling everyone to keep away from the mechanical digger as they could be killed but the families continue to dig with their hands. Every so often I hear a scream from someone who has found a relative. People are crying. My thoughts go to Chile where over a thousand people are still missing thirty years after the military coup. I say to Malik Sabri, a Chaldean Catholic, “This is a crime against humanity,” and he replies with tears in his eyes, “No, it is more than a crime.”

I keep asking myself why this situation is being allowed to develop in this way. Who killed these people, who provided the guns and bullets? Why were forensic examinations not carried out when the mass graves were opened so that those who are guilty could be brought to justice? We will probably never know the answers to these questions.

Updated on October 06 2016