"Insecurity in Basra hospitals"

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Tuesday, July 01, 2003 at 11:47AM :

Insecurity in Basra hospitals
Report, IRIN
via electroniciraq.net

30 June 2003

BASRA - 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."

-- Sadie
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