Medicine under fire

Before sanctions and the invasion of Iraq, Baghdad’s Medical Hospital was considered one of the capital’s most impressive facilities.

Doctors treat the many injured, sick before and after invasion

It had 700 beds and employed more than 1200 people. Not only did it have a national reputation for training and excellence, it had an international one too.

Dr Muhannad al-Samaria was one of the hospital’s senior doctors. He had worked under the US-led economic sanctions imposed on Iraq for more than a decade following its invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s and knew what privation meant.

In some hospitals, patients had to provide their own bed sheets and covers. Medicine was scarce and purchased mostly on the black market. Under sanctions, while the number of hospital beds available declined, the infant mortality rate increased and life expectancy decreased.

Sanctions effect on health

According to human rights organisations, thousands of children died every month in Iraq as a result of these sanctions. The country’s health declined, exacerbated by malnutrition, poor sanitation and reduced access to safe drinking water. And the once well-maintained medical facility started to lack even the basics.

But the situation deteriorated even further during the war and, in its immediate aftermath, anarchy left it subject to looting and vandalism.

“Iraqis will never give up hope. And neither will I”

Dr Muhannad al-Samaria

After the collapse of the government, the hospital’s staff took on another responsibility – defending their facilities from the public. They later also tried to retrieve stolen equipment.

Security concerns

Added to this problem was the lack of security in the city during the war. Many of the hospital’s essential staff were confined to their homes, seeking shelter from the invading soldiers and looting mobs.

“Students from Baghdad’s school of medicine offered their help as volunteers, working day and night,” says al-Samaria. “But still the staff were simply overwhelmed by the number of cases.

“There is a scene that will never escape my mind. It was at the Adnan Khair Allah hospital. Scores of wounded were lying on the bare floor. There was no room for them anywhere. They begged for help. All at once.”

Many hospitals lack even basic medicines to treat Iraqis
Many hospitals lack even basic medicines to treat Iraqis

Many hospitals lack even basic
medicines to treat Iraqis

Dealing with the dead 

Painful memories continue to plague him. “In Baghdad,” he says, “corpses were everywhere.”

During the war, Madinat al-Tib hospital’s morgue was full. The employees used a rusty dairy-truck cooler to store the corpses.

But the cooler broke down and the stench of death engulfed the hospital and its surroundings for days.

Al-Samaria sought alternatives. “Two days after the American invasion of Baghdad, together with some volunteers, we dug three mass graves and buried the dead. There were young men, women and a few elders. There was also the body of an eight-year-old girl which was decomposing and her skull was partly shattered.”

After the war

A few days after the fall of Baghdad, al-Samaria, his wife and nearly 30 other physicians occupied a vacant government building to use as a clinic.

“Once people in the neighbourhood knew we were preparing for a health centre, volunteers of all ages rushed to help. Some of them were cleaning and arranging the place and others used their cars as ambulances.”

In times of war, hope may seem the only commodity available that aids a nation in its quest to carry on. Al-Samaria insists, “Iraqis will never give up hope. And neither will I.”

Source: Al Jazeera