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[casi] Iraq: Insecurity in Basra hospitals

UN OCHA Integrated Regional Information Network

Date: 30 Jun 2003

Iraq: Insecurity in Basra hospitals

BASRA, 30 June (IRIN) - The tall, moustachioed security guard cuts a
commanding figure as he patrols the heavy wrought iron gates. At his feet
lies a collection of firearms - three Kalashnikov assault rifles, a couple
of pistols and a hand grenade, all wrapped in bits of paper with names
written in Arabic on each of them.
Ahead and to the right, a rusty old pick-up full to bursting with angry
looking men screeches to a halt. The men jump down, sling their rifles over
their shoulders, and between them carry a body - limp and blood-soaked -
through the white swing doors.

A tired old man dressed in a white coat holds open the door of the emergency
room as the body is brought in. Two of the men collapse to the hospital
floor and wail - beating the palms of their hands against the floor. Their
father is the third gunshot victim admitted to the emergency room in the
last three hours, but the first to have died. Another day at Basra General
Hospital has begun.

"This has become a normal sight for us," said Sabah Awad, the medical
assistant in charge of the emergency room, as he watched a doctor trying to
pump breath back into a seemingly lifeless body. "For every patient
suffering from asthma or gastrointestinal diseases, we have another who has
been shot."

And it is not just the high number of gunshot wounds and stabbings that has
made a Basra doctor's life so much more difficult in these uncertain days,
but the fear of retribution by angry relatives.

There have been many cases of armed gunmen threatening hospital staff with
death if they do not save friends or fellow gang members brought in after
the city's latest gun battle; and many hospital windows have been shattered
by angry relatives after a patient's death.

On the night of Sunday 22 June in the hospital's paediatric ward, female
doctors were forced to seek refuge behind the heavy door of their residence
from a mob of angry relatives who blamed them for the death of a
10-month-old baby, despite the doctors' repeated warnings that there had
been nothing they could have done to save the child.

Ten kilometres away, at the Basra Teaching Hospital, a certain decorum and
order prevails that is missing at the general hospital, but otherwise much
is the same.

Take for example the events last week in the surgical ward, where the victim
of a revenge shooting lay recovering from a bullet wound. He had been
accused of serving with the previous regime, was under arrest and was being
guarded by four security guards stationed in the ward.

At dawn last Tuesday, a lone gunman entered the ward, threatened the
security guards with a grenade, then calmly proceeded to execute the patient
with a bullet to the head before escaping to the safety of the street
outside. Afraid for their lives, the guards did not give chase.

But to suggest that there is an orchestrated campaign of insecurity in
Basra's hospitals - or indeed that insecurity is a just a problem afflicting
hospitals in the city - would be misleading.

Much of the simple fabric of day-to-day life in Iraq has collapsed. Where
relatives were formerly only allowed to visit hospital patients at strictly
controlled hours, they now keep a permanent bedside vigil, threatening
doctors with violence if lives are not saved, hospital staff said. Where
smoking was strictly forbidden inside the hospitals, the stench of stale
tobacco or clouds of fresh smoke now linger in every corner.

Dr Khalid Nasir is the chief neurosurgeon at the teaching hospital and head
of its technical department. His hospital survived the worst excesses of
looting that swept the city in the aftermath of the Saddam regime's
collapse, thanks largely to the vigilante efforts of his own staff and the
presence of British troops at the hospital gates.

But Nasir says the insecurity problem affecting Basra's hospitals could be
resolved if British troops were to guard all of them around the clock. This
is something that Flt-Lt Peter Darling, the spokesman for the British armed
forces in Iraq, says is simply impossible. "Everyone wants a British soldier
on every corner, and we simply can't do that."

This is a fact many Iraqis, grateful for the considerable efforts being made
by the British to restore law and order in Basra, acknowledge.

Darling says that although the process is still ongoing, progress is being
made, pointing to the 13,000 Iraqi police and security guards the British
are in the process of training, equipping and arming as evidence. "Acts of
armed violence have gone down, and mass looting has largely stopped, but
this place is awash with criminals and guns. The Iraqi people need to
understand that this process takes time."

Or, as Dr Ali Alwan, the manager of Basra's Port Hospital, told IRIN when
asked what he thought was behind the rash of outbreaks of violence at his
hospital: "The Iraqi people are not bad, nor are they violent," he replied.
"But for the first time in their lives they have tasted freedom, and now
they are drunk with it."


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Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2003

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