Scenes of horror at Iraqi hospital

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Scenes of horror at Iraqi hospital

Jennie Matthew | Samawa, Iraq?
11 February 2004 12:22

Two-year-old Nawaf Mishal lies whimpering on a pile of dirty blankets in an Iraqi hospital, so malnourished his face is deformed, his legs are like pencils and his enormous almond eyes empty with pain.

He vomits everything he eats, and a 10-day course of antibiotics and fluids at the children’s hospital in Samawa, about 260km south of Baghdad, has not helped.

Nawaf fell ill when the village drinking water became infused with sewage. No one in his family thought to boil the water first.

Doctors at the hospital say the number of cases of severe gastroenteritis caused by contaminated water have doubled since the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq.

In the children’s ward, the stench of dried sweat and raw waste is almost unbearable. Mothers, dressed head to foot in black robes, sit cross-legged on the floor or beds, cradling children as many drift slowly into death.

The hospital has only 11 incubator units for more than 20 premature babies.
Most date back to the 1980s before international sanctions isolated Iraq from the world in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Oxygen supplies run out for days. Doctors have less than half the drugs, fluids and equipment they need. The electricity goes off for hours. The hospital’s sewage system frequently overflows.

“We have nothing. Most children die, especially in winter,” said Samah Zaher, a 25-year-old junior doctor.

Doctors suspect three-year-old Abdullah Salah, suddenly seized by convulsions three days ago, has meningitis or encephalitis.

But resident paediatrician Ayad Miran thinks the journey to Baghdad for a scan and diagnosis would kill the child.

“I’m a sad man for the condition of these children,” says Miran, who works more than 10 hours a day, seven days a week for $150 a month.

The hospital is also woefully incapable of treating hideously disfigured babies, whose illnesses doctors suspect are being caused by depleted uranium ammunition used by US and British troops in the 1991 Gulf War.

“They have different rare diseases and deformities, such as multiple fractures, bone disorders, supernumerary fingers and thumbs. Sometimes they live for a few weeks. When the deformities are very bad they usually die,” says paediatrician Abdul Amieer al-Dabbagh.

Two months ago, a woman gave birth to what he could describe only as a “mermaid”, with a thick “fishbone tail” in place of the legs, three double chins and partially formed ears. He keeps pictures of all such children.

It was so disfigured, doctors could not tell whether the baby was a boy or a girl and the infant died shortly after delivery.

Unemployment is rife in Samawa and public sanitation almost non-existent. The hospital used to charge for treatment, but with no jobs no one can pay.

“I came to Samawa 12 years ago, at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. I chose the safest town and one year later the embargoes started,” says Dabbagh.

In 1995, he was jailed by Saddam’s regime for four months after a British pharmacist visited the hospital with vital supplies of medicine.

About 600 Dutch troops have been based in Samawa since Saddam was ousted from power 10 months ago, but no one at the hospital has seen them.

Many have high hopes that Japanese peacekeeping troops, who began arriving last month, will rebuild the moribund city.

But so far the only signed and sealed construction contract is for their military camp outside the city. — Sapa-AFP