Iraq’s hospitals caught in the crosshairs

Wounded Iraqi civilians have flocked to hospitals under fire from Islamic State fighters and government forces.

The Iraqi air force struck Fallujah General Hospital with barrel bombs, a type of IED dropped from aircraft [AP]

Kirkuk, Iraq Three days ago, Akram and his daughter made the perilous drive from Tikrit, a city situated on the Tigris River, to Kirkuk Hospital, 120km away. The drive once took two hours, but it now takes nine.

Akram’s daughter only had a short window to receive the urgent medical care she required before she would run into serious, irreversible trouble. Wearing a light blue caftan and smoking a cigarette outside the hospital’s main entrance, Akram’s eyes welled up with tears as he took a long drag from his cigarette.

“There was blood everywhere and there are no hospitals operating in Tikrit,” he told Al Jazeera, preferring not to use his full name for security reasons. “My eight-year-old daughter was shot in the head by armed men – by Daesh [the Islamic State group]. The bullet was lodged in her head.”

We had to drive to Kirkuk, but she lost a lot of blood and fell into a coma on the way here three days ago. She's on life support but she won't wake up.

by - Akram, patient's father at Kirkuk hospital

“We had to drive to Kirkuk, but she lost a lot of blood and fell into a coma on the way here three days ago. She’s on life support but she won’t wake up,” the father continued. “She won’t wake up ever again,” he said, tears rolling down his face.

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The Islamic State group, which quickly came to control a large swath of territory in Iraq during a blitzkrieg in June, has threatened the stability of an already fragile country as well as the wider region.

In Tikrit – the home town of executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein – the Iraqi air force has launched air strikes targeting Islamic State cells, but some of the strikes have ended up killing and wounding innocent civilians.

Meanwhile, in Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, air attacks continue to target fighters after the Iraq army abandoned its post in a stunning defeat on June 10.

Consequently, hospitals and other medical facilities have been seriously hampered by the renewed conflict, often bearing the brunt of intense shelling and aerial assaults, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). “Medical staff have fled, fearing attacks on the health facilities where they are working,” Fabio Forgione, MSF’s head of mission in Iraq, said in a statement.

“We are extremely concerned that significant numbers of people are now deprived of the medical assistance they need.”

While under the control of Kurdish soldiers, the area is surrounded by territory controlled by Sunni armed groups. Staff at Kirkuk Hospital, which serves as the first point of contact for many patients because it is located in the city centre, told Al Jazeera that they were overwhelmed with patients.

While exact figures for the number of patients were not available, a doctor told Al Jazeera that 200 patients had arrived from areas across Iraq – Tikrit, Mosul, Talafar, and Fallujah, to name a few – since early June. 

An emergency department doctor, who didn’t give Al Jazeera his name because he wasn’t allowed to speak with the press, said the hospital was experiencing serious drug and staff shortages. “People from Mosul are sleeping in the gardens of the hospital, waiting for medical treatment. There are too many people to treat and we have drug and staff shortages,” the doctor said, as he moved from patient to patient.

“There is no difference between the emergency department and a clinic these days. People are just crammed everywhere. This is Iraq. It’s destroyed. There are no rules. It’s crazy. We just don’t have the facilities or medicine to deal with this issue. Healthcare in this country is just plain crazy.”

Khalid, a healthcare worker at the hospital mirrored his concerns. “We had 13 nurses from India here and they’ve left; they’re afraid. What can we do?” he said.

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At the hospital, eight-year-old Hassam lay motionless on a bed, blood spilling from his abdomen as hospital staff redressed his wound. Hassam had just had surgery to remove shrapnel that had become wedged in his stomach. “Nine days ago as we were sleeping at home in Tikrit, our house was hit by an air strike from the Iraqi air force,” Hassam’s father, who didn’t give Al Jazeera his name, said.

“It took us nine hours to drive here because the roads were blocked. There are no doctors left in Tikrit. We had nowhere else to go.”

In the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), another young boy was pronounced brain dead from injuries sustained as a result of intense shelling that had hit his home. “He’s on life support but we’ve told the family that after one or two weeks we’ll have to turn it off,” a nurse told Al Jazeera.

Chaotic scenes played out both inside and outside the hospital as a never-ending line of injured people entered the grounds. Security guards and police surrounded the hospital, checking people’s IDs and cars before being allowed through.

The job is continuous, but we're discharging people quickly so we have enough beds. We're trying to get more doctors.

by - Dr Moustafa Abbas Kadhim, Azadi General Hospital in Kirkuk

Outside the main hospital doors, a crowd gathered as a man from Fallujah, who was having a heart checkup, recounted his story. He said Fallujah General Hospital had been targeted several times by barrel bombs, referring to an IED dropped from a helicopter or aeroplane. The hospital, he said, had also been hit more than 20 times with rockets, heavy artillery and mortars, which had killed medical staff and patients.

“All the medical services have pretty much shut down,” he said. “I’ve got serious heart problems and was transferred here. It took days to get here and there’s a fuel shortage.”

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At Azadi General Hospital, Kirkuk’s major hospital which has about 400 beds, the situation appeared less dire. General surgeon Dr Moustafa Abbas Kadhim, said that while the hospital was in better condition than Kirkuk Hospital, pressure was mounting as the violence across Iraq continues.

“The conditions that we’re facing are similar to every war we’ve faced so we’re trying to use our experience to manage the current crisis in the best way possible,” he said. “The job is continuous, but we’re discharging people quickly so we have enough beds. We’re trying to get more doctors.”

In the ICU, one child was in a coma, while two adults that had been injured in fighting in Kiruk and Mosul were conscious, but in a serious condition. “This is our problem,” said Dr Ali, an ICU doctor who didn’t give Al Jazeera his full name, “our patients are just innocent civilians”.

Source: Al Jazeera