Iraq: The Return to Erbil

Rosella Palma – Michela Paschetto An EMERGENCY team returns to Erbil after twelve years to treat the victims of the capture of Mosul. The garden of the EMERGENCY hospital in Erbil, with its four rose beds surrounding a central fountain, almost seems like somewhere one might find a moment of peace in the midst of war. On the dot of twelve o’clock, the muezzin’s song rings out from the nearby minaret, the call to prayer telling the patients and their relatives to put away their thoughts and worries. In minutes, the garden is covered in carpets woven with linear and geometric patterns. For a moment, the fear of war, normally ever-present, seems far away. EMERGENCY returned to this hospital at the start of the year to offer medical aid and surgery for the victims of the conflict in Mosul. It’s the same surgical centre EMERGENCY built in 1998, then entrusted to the local authorities in 2005, by which time Iraqi Kurdistan seemed a stable, safe place. Then, in October 2016, the Iraqi army, with the support of an international coalition, launched a huge counteroffensive to push Isis out of its Iraqi stronghold. Within months, the government forces had retaken the east side of Mosul, going on to attack the west side, a highly populated area that includes the old town. Isis used the inhabitants of Mosul as human shields. Driven by violence, hunger and desperation, over 700,000 people, around a third of the population, decided to flee. Mines, shells and bullets claimed many of them as victims. This is how they ended up as patients at the EMERGENCY hospital. In the afternoon, when the heat has gone out of the day, the garden comes alive. Now there is movement, there is life: the chatter of patients leaving the hospital wards for a breath of air or a cup of tea; the screaming of a struggling baby undergoing physiotherapy; or the wheels on the tricycle belonging to five-year-old Amina, who fled Mosul with her family. She arrived in her father’s arms, along with one of her brothers, whose ear was seriously damaged. Now she gets attention from everyone, and has even learnt to speak a few words of Italian with our staff. Amina’s father thought he had lost his wife and three of their children in attempting to flee Mosul, until a few weeks later, when he received a phone call saying one of his daughters had lost a leg but survived. A few days later, the little girl arrived at the hospital and the family began to reunite. In another few days, the fourth brother also arrived; contrary to their fears, he had remained in Mosul with his grandmother, stuck there for weeks because the bridges were destroyed in raids. ‘When I arrived at the EMERGENCY hospital I asked straight away for what I needed to shave my beard. We had a normal life before Isis came and spread terror. I don’t want to have anything in common with them. I was lucky. I still have three of my children with me. But I lost my wife and one of my sons because of the war.’ In Mosul, about 80 kilometres from Erbil, hospitals near populated areas are inaccessible or closed. Many patients die from lack of immediate treatment, or from the long transfer times necessary to maintain adequate facilities. The injured arrive at the Trauma Stabilisation Points, near the front lines, where they are given initial treatment, then assigned to the secondary treatment facilities. From February to May our staff have treated more than 740 victims of war and carried out 1,181 surgical operations. EMERGENCY are also busy restructuring the hospital to which they have returned. We are increasing the number of bed spaces, which has gone from 24 to 84, and training doctors in warzone surgery with the help of international staff, to get the hospital procedures in line with international standards. At sunset the patients go back to their wards to eat, and the relatives go to the canteen, or back to the tents set up in the courtyard behind the hospital, where they will spend the night. In one corner of the garden, next to his twelve-year-old son Rayyan’s room, Tareq remains. He smiles and jokes at the patient’s bedside but now, when Rayyan sleeps, he goes into the garden and, while smoking, says that his son once dreamed of being in an explosion, before the day one left him paraplegic. ‘One afternoon Rayyan and his cousin decided to clean up the little park near our house in Al Muthanna, the eastern part of Mosul, so they could play football there again. They got rakes and bags to clean up the rubble and went to the park, about a hundred metres from the house. Up till then everything seemed fine. I was on the roof, drinking tea with my younger son, Rafat. I heard a rumble, I turned round and I saw a shell fall right in the middle of the park where Rayyan was playing. I hurried there and I saw him. One of my neighbours had put him in their car to take him to hospital.’ He chose the name Rayyan himself. It means ‘he who is never thirsty’; those who fast often in their lives are destined for heaven. And now, at sunset, in that same garden, one can almost hear in the silence the thoughts of all the parents who have come to the hospital to care for their children. Lina is another patient at the EMERGENCY hospital. She is a fourteen-year-old from Mosul, who came here after a shell hit her in the abdomen. She too can often be found in the garden with her mum and dad, who lost everything at Mosul: their home, jobs and car. Lina’s mum, who speaks a little English after studying it at school, repeats to her daughter: ‘Count the flowers in your garden, never the leaves that fall.’