Baghdad Hospital

Editor's note: Staff photographer Cheryl Diaz Meyer has returned to Iraq to cover rebuilding efforts. In a personal journal, she reflects on the chaos she encountered at a Baghdad hospital. There, amid the disarray, watching women give birth in bare-bones conditions, she also found that life goes on. In March, she covered the war with Marines of the 2nd Tank Battalion. This report is based on an e-mail she sent to family, friends and colleagues.)  December 2003.

 

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Their bright, intelligent eyes studied me, their stained white robes blending in with the dirty fingerprints on the walls. Midnight had come and gone... Then it was one... two ... three...four o'clock in the morning.

It was dark for miles around, and we were huddled in Kadhamiya Hospital, a safe haven in a city where gangs of criminals have been perfecting the art of ambushing unwary victims. It wasn't always this way. Certainly not during the time of Saddam Hussein, who was captured last weekend.

We were huddled in a bright, fluorescent-lighted room. And this time, I was a journalist from the Philippines. Yesterday, I was in Najaf, one of the holiest cities in Iraq for Shiite Muslims, and my translator decided I was Azerbaijani. Each day, he gets more and more creative. When I wake up in the mornings, I never know who I will be that day.

"Where are you from?" asked one of the doctors. I looked at my translator inquisitively.

"Where am I from, Saleem?"

"You are from the Philippines, of course, " he said with conviction.

We have come to Baghdad to do a story about the security situation in Iraq. We had planned to follow the ambulances around for the night. But the hospital wasn't dispatching the ambulances. There is no working phone system in Baghdad, and the injured would never make it to the hospital if they waited for an ambulance.

So I gave up on that plan around 9 p.m. and decided to focus on the patients already in the hospital, one of only two in Baghdad with an emergency room.

Hours passed. The doctors were supposed to be sleeping during their night rotation. But they found the presence of a journalist a welcome respite from their daily routine. They kept me company during my overnight vigil waiting for victims of violence.

But the only patients who came in were women – robed in long, black, billowing abbayas – pain etched on every inch of their faces. They were in labor, and the doctors couldn't be bothered to get up. Instead, they waved the women on to the third floor, the obstetrics department, which had one female doctor for most of the night.

The obstetrics department handles an average of 30 births per day. Once a woman is dilated, she has about 20 minutes to give birth before the next woman is shuffled onto the birthing table. A gloved hand and a pair of scissors expedite the process.

 

The downfall

"Greed will be the downfall of Iraq, " said one doctor in clear, concise English.

The simplicity, eloquence and truth of that statement made me want to cry. Looting during and after the war was so widespread that not a person was left unaffected.

But I have found that in this country of great paradox, one sees the most despicable deeds and the most inconceivable acts of honor. In such extreme circumstances, humans are pushed to their limits, and the truth of character is revealed.

The hospitals in Baghdad are a pathetic mess. They have a shortage of medicine, medical equipment and supplies. The stench is a combination of blood, pharmaceuticals and human excrement.

But the problem is not simply a shortage of supplies – it's the greed of a staff that has been pilfering the hospital's supplies of medicine and equipment, alleged Dr. Esam, who is the brother of my translator.

Under Saddam, Iraqis learned to be creative in supplementing their meager wages by stealing the supplies in their care.

So when the doctor blew the whistle on the hospital's director after the war, he says he was offered a nice car and $20,000 to shut up. It would take 15 years to earn that sum on a doctor's salary in Iraq.

He declined and instead led a rebellion to oust the former Baathist – and succeeded. He didn't consider this particularly heroic in light of the fact that he had stayed in the hospital at the height of the war and fought off looters for several days. It's mainly because of his efforts that Kadhamiya Hospital is one of the better hospitals in Baghdad today.

"Don't trust anyone, not even my brother, the doctor, " whispered Saleem. But the doctors were educated enough to know that my Patagonia fleece top was probably not from the Philippines, my manner not quite of the Far East and my American accent came too easily.

I don't like this business of half-truths. But in Iraq today, it is a matter of life and death.

When asked, all the other U.S. photographers who are working in Iraq just laugh and say that they haven't been Americans in months.

 

Anger and antagonism

It's my first time back to Iraq since I covered the war in the spring as an embedded journalist with the Marines and then as a unilateral journalist in Baghdad. It's a very different place from the Baghdad I remember. The energy is different – both the energy of the U.S. military and that of the Iraqis.

The military has closed much of its book to journalists, my colleagues and I believe. Many in the public, meanwhile, believe that the media has told too many negative stories that scare people back home.

And the Iraqis have become angry at America and downright antagonistic toward Americans. The United States is the world's superpower and they believe it should be able to fix all their problems – quickly.

But here we are, eight months after the war's end and still they are suffering from shortages in fuel, sporadic electricity, garbage and sewage in the streets, high crime and, in their view, anarchy.

"Ah, what is this democracy?" my driver once screamed as we nearly collided with yet another car driving in the wrong direction.

I've given up on gasping every time we have a near fatality, because I can't stand the exhaust that gets sucked into my lungs from the thousands of vehicles vying for every inch of space on the road. Most vehicles spewing fumes here were made in the '70s and '80s, before the sanctions were imposed on Iraq, halting the country's progress for the last two decades.

 

Democracy?

Should Iraq have a democracy or a dictatorship? That was the question I posed to doctors in the Kadhamiya Hospital. Iraqis insist that they don't want a dictator. But a democracy will never work in Iraq either, the doctors said.

Because Iraqis are verry, verry different, they said, their bushy eyebrows flickering with meaning that I wasn't sure I grasped. How so? I asked, hoping to be enlightened.

Years of war have damaged the Iraqis, the doctors said. You can see it clearly in the children who will welcome a foreigner one moment and throw stones the next.

There is a deep and odd violence that characterizes the people. The lack of motivation and laziness is tantamount to a national illness. It will take several generations for this to change, the doctors said. Iraqis say they need a blend of democracy and dictatorship because the people are too uneducated to make decisions for themselves. They don't know the meaning of democracy.

To illustrate their point, the doctors told me a story. A woman was interviewed on a prominent TV network.

"Do you think Iraq should have a democracy, voting for a new president every four years?"

"Yes, democracy is great," she replied. "We could loot every four years."

I understood the doctors' complaints, because I have lived them these past 10 days in Baghdad. It is a verry, verry strange place.

 

Bad luck

In the hospital that night, I met a 22-year-old patient by the name of Mohannad. I only sort of met him, because he was actually under a blanket, his leg sticking out, wrapped in bloody gauze.

He was comatose, drugged with Valium. He still had a bullet lodged in his leg, because it was Eid, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, and the surgeons were on vacation.

"Such bad luck to be shot during Eid," my translator remarked. "I fear that he might lose a leg because gangrene will develop in the bullet wound."

Mohannad was shot by a cousin. The cousin explained that Mohannad was being very bad. He had killed a man, and looted and robbed him.

Mohannad's family is financially comfortable. They own four cars. The problem is that all his criminal activity reflects badly on the family, and in a tribal society, this could bring some nasty results if a victim's family decided to exact revenge on Mohannad's family.

So the family decided that in order to save the family honor, Mohannad should be killed. The cousin, a policeman, was designated to do the job. But the cousin decided to shoot him in the leg instead, because Allah prohibits killing, he said.

And so now he watched over his cousin, hoping his recovery would take a long time.

Eventually, the doctors caught on to me, and I let Saleem weave the final touches to the tale of my identity. It's great to be back in Baghdad.