Hospital's halls spill over with sorrows of war

Trauma: In Baghdad, Iraqis try to come to terms with their wounds while doctors struggle to keep order.

War In Iraq

April 19, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The war that the United States began in Iraq will never be over for 14-year-old Mustafa Alkaiysi.

On his left hand, one finger is missing. On the right, three are gone, all of them blown off when he picked up a detonator in a weapons cache abandoned by Saddam Hussein's paramilitary force, the fedayeen.

On a recent afternoon he sat up in his bed on the third floor of Al Thawra Alam Hospital, his hands wrapped in white cotton gauze like boxing gloves. He stared at the bandages, as if looking at them long enough might somehow heal wounds that he will carry with him for the rest of his life.

No one knows how many people were killed during the fighting or how many people were wounded. It is unclear if anyone will ever know exactly. The dead were abandoned in the desert, in wheat fields, on roadsides, in canals and under the rubble of buildings. The wounded wandered the streets of Baghdad, the highways, the countryside, begging families, clinics and the U.S. military for help.

But walk the length of the hallways reeking of urine and cleanser at Al Thawra Alam Hospital in the sprawling neighborhood called Saddam City, and the scale of the suffering in human terms, if not numerical terms, becomes clear. Each of these hospital's 350 beds is another page in the catalog of the sorrows of this war.

Outside the hospital gates on a recent morning, armed guards with Kalashnikov rifles fired rounds into the air - to keep looters away. A man - dead or dying, it was not clear which - lay stretched out on a gurney that had somehow drifted into lanes of traffic. A driver rushing a wailing man with burns to the hospital swerved to avoid the gurney, before slipping past the gates, where a coffin sat in parking space. A man clutching a prayer book wept over the coffin.

In the hospital, in the bed next to Alkaiysi, an Iraqi soldier groaned, his stomach torn by bullets. Down the hall, an 8-year-old girl was recovering from two gunshot wounds, one to her arm and a second to her stomach. Who shot her no one knew.

On the next floor, a middle-age man lay in a bed with a tube snaking from his nose, his body a leopard skin of scabs suffered when his home was hit by a U.S. cluster bomb.

"We had a lot of casualties. There were 350 in three days," said Dr. Mowafak Gorea, the hospital's director. "All of last week, we were the only hospital with a full staff in Baghdad."

The city's other hospitals were pillaged by Baghdad's residents. They made off with wheelchairs, beds, syringes and ceiling fans. At Olympic Hospital, an exclusive health center in central Baghdad owned by Saddam Hussein's son, Odai, the building was abandoned by its staff and then ransacked. Inside, the air stank of formaldehyde. Water ran down the garbage-strewn hallways. The hospital's equipment was missing or destroyed. A group of looters on a recent afternoon was tearing out the hospital's toilets - probably the only functioning equipment remaining.

The lack of working hospitals in other parts of the city has kept Al Thawra jammed with patients - most of them war-related injuries.

One floor below Alkaiysi's room, 19-year-old Jihad Abdul Kareem lay on his bed, his cousin offering spoonfuls of porridge. His chest and stomach were a patchwork of bandages. A clear plastic tube drained blood from his belly to a plastic bag on the floor.

Early this month, Kareem and his neighbor were driving home when they came upon an American military checkpoint.

The neighbor, who was driving, hadn't seen the signs warning motorist to stop. This was the road they drove on every day, and they didn't expect a blockade. Before they realized they had made a mistake, U.S. forces - nervous after a series of suicide bombings at checkpoints - opened fire.

The neighbor was killed instantly. Kareem is expected to survive, although his chest will be marked forever with scars.

"What happened happened," Kareem said, each word struggling to come from his lips as if caught somewhere deep inside his throat. "We are civilians. We are not guilty. We did not do anything, and we got this."

Kareem's cousin, Abdul Sattar, 35, rested the porridge beside the bed and asked: "Are they here to help people or hurt people?" Like many other Iraqis, Sattar is confused by the United States' intentions. U.S. forces did nothing to stop the ransacking of dozens of hospitals, government buildings and museums after the fall of Baghdad, but they did guard the ministry of oil, he said.

"If America wants to protect people, they can do that," Sattar said. "Why don't they do that for the services like hospitals?"

On another bed 21-year-old Khasim Yousseff was recovering from a bullet wound to the stomach. He was a member of Iraq's Republican Guard. When the American bombing started, his commanding officers fled, and Yousseff did, too.

"The officers were running away. What should I do?" he asked.

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