For many, a time to heal, a time for tears

Iraqi civilian war victims convalesce in U.S. hospital

War In Iraq

March 30, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SOUTH CENTRAL IRAQ - A father comforted his 3-year- old daughter in the hospital bed next to his 5-year-old son. A farmer said he was shot after being forced to dress like an Iraqi soldier to set up an ambush. A college professor said he was fleeing the battle in his city when he was wounded.

A tour of the 86th Combat Support Hospital offered a gallery of the war victims who didn't belong to any army but now were convalescing under green military blankets.

For most, it was a time to heal and a time for tears. Khalid, whose last name and those of the others are being withheld to ensure their safety, sobbed as he told how 15 of the 18 members of his family were killed.

As the fighting intensified around Nasiriyah, Khalid and his family fled into a thicket of bombs and bullets. He survived with his son, Mohammed, who was severely burned on the back of his head and ears, and his daughter, Yakeen, who wasn't hurt. With Yakeen curled up next to him, he broke down after saying the deaths in his family were his fault.

U.S. Army doctors established the hospital about a week ago and began treating the first patient just six hours after setting up in the abandoned operations building at a former Iraqi military airfield.

The nearly 70 beds are filled by coalition soldiers, Iraqi prisoners of war and Iraqi civilians caught in the crossfire. Nabeeh is a professor of veterinary medicine in Nasiriyah, the scene of some of the most intense fighting of the war.

When he tried to head back to his village, his government-issued pickup truck drew the attention of U.S. soldiers, who opened fire.

"We were speeding," said Nabeeh, who speaks English.

U.S. Army doctors have set up operating rooms and pediatric wards in the main building. In the long tents nearby, nurses tend mostly to Iraqi patients stretched out on portable hospital beds, sort of elevated cots with better frames.

Two patients described battle scenes that seemed to support coalition allegations that the Iraqi military is using civilians as shields.

Ghaleb, a 43-year-old farmer from the Nasiriyah area, said Republican Guard troops forced him to put on an Iraqi army uniform, gave him a nonfunctioning rifle, and told him and six or seven other men to stand at a highway checkpoint to draw the attention of U.S. troops.

"They couldn't go back," a translator relayed, "because whoever goes back gets shot." Iraqi army units waited to ambush the Americans, Ghaleb said. The ambush failed, but the Americans attacked and Ghaleb was wounded in the leg.

Another patient, Abbas, said Iraqis set up an anti-aircraft gun emplacement in his neighborhood, thinking coalition planes wouldn't bomb near homes. The bombs came anyway, and three of his children were killed, he said.

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