Children lying on dirty vinyl mattresses, desperate mothers clutching whimpering infants, harassed doctors signing prescriptions that they barely have time to read – a week after the guns fell silent the scene at the Central Children’s hospital in the Iraqi capital is still one of war-related chaos, relieved only by tireless improvisation by dedicated staff.
Ali Ismail Abbas, the boy who lost his parents and his arms in an American missile strike and became an international symbol of Iraqi civilians’ suffering, was lucky to be flown to Kuwait this week.
For Iraq’s other children the agony caused by war goes on. Doctors have not been able to keep count of the numbers injured in the war: after the failure of the city’s telephone system no one was able to coordinate figures. Hospitals cannot contact each other except by sending messengers.
At least six children were wounded by cluster bombs this week and taken to the Kadhimiya hospital because it is nearest to where they live. Clutching his mother’s hand as he lay on a mattress, Ali Mustafa’s head is half hidden by a bandage. He is a “post-war” victim. The five-year-old was playing with his brother and two friends earlier this week when he picked up an odd round object. It was an unexploded cluster bomb, one of thousands that lie around Baghdad. It exploded in his hands, blinding him. His legs, scarred with shrapnel, will heal but Ali Mustafa’s sight will never return.
“I have two wounded children, and two neighbours also have this tragedy,” said Ghaleb Mustafa, Ali’s father. Across the ward Adel Hamid was looking after his 10-year-old nephew who lay with a criss-cross set of large bandages on his stomach.
“I wish he could go abroad for treatment too,” he said, having heard of Ali Ismail Abbas’s good fortune.
“I’m from the same part of Baghdad, known as Harir city. It was exposed to massive bombardment by cluster bombs.
Four people died and 17 were injured at the time,” said Issam Khuleif, the hospital’s chief registrar.
Even if they escaped direct injury from bombing, thousands of Iraqi children are continuing to suffer from the chaos created by war. Fuel shortages and the lack of electricity make it hard for hospitals to cope, leaving patients without proper care.
Racing between two small cubicles, Abdul Hamid al-Sadoon, a doctor at the Central hospital, is surrounded by anxious parents. As the taxi system slowly revives in Baghdad now black market petrol is being sold from jerry-cans on street corners in the absence of electricity for the official pumps, parents who could not take their sick children out of the house during the war are hastening for help.
Few doctors’ surgeries are open and the children’s hospital is besieged. If the children were on medication before and their parents bring an old prescription, an orderly writes out a new one and stamps it. Five mothers with infants are pushing towards the vinyl mattress behind which Dr al- Sadoon sits. They put their babies down and he signs the form, often without time to check the child.
A nine-year-old boy with a brain tumour sits in a wheelchair to one side. “He needs chemotherapy,” says the doctor. “How can we provide it now? We still have the basics in the store, but unless new supplies start being sent today we will run out in a few weeks.
“We need everything – gauze, cotton, gloves, silk for stitching, needles, x-ray film,” he says. “Iraq will be Iraq. We will not accept the United States or Britain as occupiers, but because the conditions here are miserable I’m requesting the United Nations, the United States, the United Kingdom, or any country to help us.”
The US failure so far to restore the electricity system which it damaged in the war has also kept Baghdad’s oxygen factory shut. The children’s hospital needs between six and 10 canisters a day, and the supplies in store have almost run out.
Baghdad has 33 hospitals for a population of five million but several are closed because of power shortages or because transport problems prevent staff getting to work. Many doctors are working at the hospitals nearest their homes.
Another doctor rushes in. A baby in the nearby ward has died. Dr al-Sadoon hastens to the bed where a distraught mother in a long black dress is sobbing.
“It’s a pulmonary problem,” he explains. “The parents live 50km from Baghdad. Before the war they could have gone 5km to a local children’s clinic, but it’s closed because of lack of electricity.
“So parents leave it to the final stage before they bring the child here, and often it’s too late. This one could have been saved.”