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Friday 25th May 2018

Inside a Baghdad hospital

25th October 2006

25102006_baghdadsunrise.jpgAl-Yarmouk Hospital is in the most dangerous area of Baghdad. Sectarian violence is tearing the city apart and ambulance crews go from one dangerous mission to another. Talking on camera is dangerous, but here, patients and doctors speak out.

In the constant stream of news reports from Iraq, the voice of ordinary people seems to have been lost. The latest episode of the BBC's "This World" programme gives a direct and harrowing insight into everyday life in the Iraqi capital.

Al-Yarmouk hospital has been transformed by the insurgency and sectarian strife into a "field hospital in a civil war", according to a doctor/documentary-maker given unprecedented access to film there.

Even filming inside the Baghdad hospital is dangerous and many refuse to show their face on camera. This includes the doctor, who remains anonymous in his programme.

The nature of the injuries brought into the Emergency Room have changed over time, from the rocket injuries and bullet wounds related to the 2003 US-led invasion, through the revenge killings in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's fall, to the stabbings of petty crime in the increasingly unstable Iraqi capital.

After that came the bombings and the sectarian violence which grew markedly after the attack on a major Shia shrine in February this year.

Most recently he says, bodies have been dumped in front of the hospital by security forces - between 20 and 40 daily - because the city's central morgue is full. The bodies have "their hands tied, their faces are covered, some have been executed by being shot in the head; some have been beheaded, tortured or disembowelled".

On a day-to-day level, the main problem doctors have deal with is that of ordinary people marching in and demanding immediate care for their wounded relatives, he says. Most Iraqis now carry weapons to defend themselves and are not afraid to wave them around to get attention.

This is a place where doctors are routinely threatened, humiliated and insulted. Doctors at al-Yarmouk mostly deal with war wounds. They have to live with interior ministry forces arriving in the emergency room to demand treatment for their own people.

It is not just Iraqi security people who barge into hospitals. The doctor speaks of insurgents coming on "special missions" to kidnap Sunni patients in retaliation for sectarian attacks against Shia civilians.

"Shia death squads are hitting back - kidnapping, torturing and killing Sunni civilians," he says. Many senior doctors have been killed, kidnapped or are leaving the country.

This leaves junior doctors in charge, and although new doctors are being trained, the time could come when the Iraqi health care system will suffer a complete breakdown, he believes.

The situation got so bad that a few months ago, doctors staged a strike calling for better security inside the hospital and better working conditions.

Many bodies lie unclaimed for weeks or months. Hospitals try to keep records of the dead and injured. "The hospital has to continually report ER admissions to the ministry of health. Typically, nobody does anything with those figures, but every day [the doctor keeping records] has to go through the motions. "We don't know how many are dying; there are problems with identification and there are too many bodies."

He finds the controversial recent estimate of 655,000 deaths since the invasion entirely credible. Sometimes, the relatives take the bodies away without getting a death certificate.

Despite the daily dose of horror, the doctor says life is not worse at the ER than for anyone else in Baghdad. The doctor is not planning to join the exodus of middle-class professionals. "Making films is a better way of serving my country, of trying to draw people's attention," he says.

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