Saturday, August 28, 2004

Najaf clashes stretch hospital to the limit

Some stroke victims are too afraid of the fighting to go to hospital, doctors don't have the medical instruments to save many victims of mortar bombs and snipers and ambulances cannot get to patients at night.

Najaf's main hospital can barely cope with the chaos gripping the city of 500,000 after three weeks of battles between resistance Shiite's and US militants.

"The situation is so unstable that you have people who have a heart attack or stroke and prefer to just die at home than try to drive through the streets," said Ahmed Hamza, a 25-year-old intern at Al Hakim General Hospital.

Najaf's biggest hospital was sealed off during the last bout of fighting in April and Al Hakim General has had to take the strain. "Suddenly we became the city's biggest emergency room and we can't cope."

The biggest killers are mortar bombs aimed at offices or homes and snipers who have occupied many of Najaf's buildings. Most victims are civilians. "On the average day we have 10 to 15 dead. Five of those are killed by snipers who shoot at the chest or abdomen and most of the others die from a mortar. It sends shrapnel everywhere and we don't have the time or equipment to save them," Hamza said.

Hospital also hit

The hospital got its first taste of the conflict during the early days of fighting. A rocket came crashing down on the hospital grounds, killing an ambulance driver who was sleeping. His ambulance was also destroyed by the blast and sits ripped apart in the parking lot as relatives of patients walk by with crude wooden caskets.

There are some days when they just can't cope, like last week when a mortar bomb landed on a nearby police station, killing seven people and wounding 35.

Hamza, who writes prescriptions at a furious pace while he speaks, arrived in Najaf seven months ago hoping to avoid the blood-stained emergency rooms of Baghdad and to begin training on less depressing cases.

Now he spends his time dealing with adults and children with limbs or abdomens torn apart by shrapnel or bullets.

"We had a case the other day where a mortar wiped out two children and their mother. The mortars are just deadly. I dread them everyday," he said.

Night time is the most frustrating for the eight doctors at the hospital. Some sleep at work ready to deal with trauma. The risk of ambulances being mistaken for combatants, [? resistance], vehicles in the darkness means they can't go out, Hamza said.

The young doctor seemed nervous when asked if the emergency room treats wounded members of Sadr's resistance army.

"Well I don't think they would want treatment here. They would be afraid," he said as an Iraqi policeman looked on. We have treated a few but they did not stay long."

Outside, past the damaged ambulance, an Egyptian morgue worker who has been on the job for 20 years steps into a large sometimes refrigerated trailer and counts 13 bodies.

"Relatives don't come here to get them because they are too scared of all this chaos and killing in Najaf," said Abdel Aathim Mohammad, 49, a hard-nosed man with a wrinkled face. We have had all kinds here - beheaded, slaughtered, shot, mortared. When Saddam Hussein was still around this would never happen. Those who caused disorder were beheaded."

Some of the dead may have survived if they made it to hospital quicker. When an elderly heart attack victim was brought in, Hamza tried to save him with 30-year-old equipment.

"I knew he would die. It took too long to get him here. Sometimes we go through the motions. It's like show business," he said.

Eye on the Occupation

By The Jordan Times posted 28 August 04


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