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February 3, 2005

Casualties of Polling


by Dahr Jamail

He writhes in pain, moaning with every other breath. The Iraqi police colonel's chest is covered in bandages, his legs from the knees down nearly completely hidden from view due to thick bandages holding what is left of his shins together.

"We gave him first aid and requested a transfer because we don't have any specialists left," Dr. Aisha tells me, her name changed as requested since doctors are now technically forbidden to talk to the media or allow them to take photos in Iraqi hospitals unless granted permission from the Ministry of Health and its U.S. advisor.

And even then we are only allowed to talk with "spokespeople" at select hospitals.

Yarmouk would certainly not be on the top of their list of hospitals for the press to visit, as being one of Baghdad's larger and busiest hospitals and located in the middle of the capital city the majority of casualties are brought here.

The colonel's face is scrunched up as his pain is constant. Involuntary whimpers are audible as he squeezes his eyes closed from time to time, dreaming of relief.

"We sent him to a neurological hospital which couldn't treat him because all of their specialists have left the country," Dr. Aisha continues. Her frustration is expressed in her precisely spoken words, hammering out the details like a veteran on the front lines.

So the colonel was returned to Yarmouk untreated. He'd been guarding a polling station when a suicide bomber detonated nearby. The shrapnel turned his legs into hamburger and left his chest split open.

"I asked him not to leave the house, not to obey the Americans," his wife, who is standing nearby with their little boy and girl, tells me. "But he said that he had to go or the Americans would cut his salary. And also because he said it was his duty."

She looks over to him as another whimper emits from his contorted face, then looks back at me with anger flashing in her weary eyes.

"The Americans told him he should die with his countrymen! God damn them for what they have done to my husband! God damn them for what they have done to Iraq!"

We promptly thank her and hastily leave the room, not wanting to draw more attention to ourselves.

While walking toward the next room down the grimy hallway and broken windows Dr. Aisha waves a fly away from her face, as they constantly buzz around inside the hospital.

"He will probably lose his legs. All we have is rotator doctors and residents since all of our specialists left the country so they wouldn't be kidnapped. I've been here two days straight without sleep," she says as a group of nurses approach her to sign several files.

In the next room there is another policeman. His abdomen was blown open by a mortar blast at a polling station … he is holding a blue bandage to his face which caught some shrapnel. Tubes run from his stomach off one side of the bed.

His father sees Dr. Aisha as we approach and begins talking to her, "This hospital is so dirty! I want to transfer my son! The care is horrible!"

She calmly explains to him that they are doing their best; without enough doctors, without enough cleaners, without enough nurses, without enough supplies, without enough medicine.

The angry father's son is a 28-year-old policeman named Jalil Hassan who shifts uncomfortably in his bed. The room smells of rotten bananas and flies are everywhere. Anytime a nurse walks into the room of eight beds she/he is inundated with angry and stressed family members.

Nearby is a voter, 27-year-old Amir Hassan. His polling station was mortared as well. He caught shrapnel near his waist and is waiting for some pain medication that does not exist.

"We asked the Americans for supplies," Dr. Aisha tells me later when we exit the room, "but they didn't help us any. How can we continue like this? When an American private is badly wounded, they fly him to Germany or America. Here we have high-ranking police officers and Iraqi soldiers who are brought to this dirty hospital with no specialists!"

Abu Talat and I thank her for her time and for taking the risk necessary to bring us inside her hospital.

I notice new windows in her office – last time I was here they had been blown out by a nearby car bomb. This place turns into a field hospital every time a car bomb generates massive casualties, which is just about every day. I wonder how long her new glass will last.

I also notice the new white paint on a couple of the buildings. Abu Talat notices me looking at it in disbelief and begins laughing and holding his hands up.

Back out on the streets we head out to find some lunch. We have our usual ritual of his driving and fixing interviews simultaneously. As he holds the phone as far from his face as possible to find a number, I grab it from him to dial and he steers us back away from the side of the street.

"Name," I ask. "Dr. Hamad," he replies. I find it, dial, hand the phone to him and say, "Calling."

"Thank you," he says while we weave down the road a little further. He's searching his pockets for his lighter as he holds the phone to his ear, so I light his cigarette and we straighten out again. We have this down to a science.

There are always a pair of his glasses on the dash – sometimes his reading glasses, sometimes his bifocal specs, which he never uses despite my badgering. I bothered him for a year to get new glasses and applauded him when he proudly showed them to me recently.

Of course, now he never wears them.

The streets are filled with traffic once again after the election lockdown, trucks full of Iraqi police wearing black masks battle their way through throngs of cars, aiming their Kalashnikovs at everyone in futile attempts to make their way forward.

"I feel very much threatened when I see those police or American soldiers aiming their guns at us," states Abu Talat when a truckload of Iraqi soldiers rolls past, of course aiming their guns at us as they make their way through an intersection. "I don't accept this."

We stop to get some shawarma across the street from the Australian military outpost, which was recently car-bombed. I scan the building, chunks of it three floors up blasted off from the explosion.

A few days after the attack, the nearby Australian embassy decided to relocate to "Camp Victory," a large U.S. military base.

Back in my room, we watch the news while eating lunch and drinking tea. Storm clouds are billowing around the recent polling, as Mishaan Jiburi, one of the candidates, accuses the electoral commission of deliberately failing to supply materials in Sunni areas.

Arab voters in the north who had planned to boycott the elections in Kirkuk decided at the last minute to vote so as not to lose the oil-rich city to the Kurds. Thus, not enough ballots were supplied, and now the plot thickens.

"I think the decision came from Baghdad," Jiburi told reporters. "They were concerned with keeping the Sunnis out of the game."

Just yesterday, interim Vice President Ibrahim al-Jaafari warned of the possibility of civil war if the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq prematurely.

Keep in mind the "elections" were just three days ago.

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    Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Dahr Jamail writes about the effects of the US occupation on the people of Iraq, since the mainstream media in the US has in large part, he believes, failed to do so.

    Dahr has spent a total of 5 months in occupied Iraq, and plans on returning in October to continue reporting on the occupation. One of only a few independent reporters in Iraq, Dahr will be using the DahrJamailIraq.com website and mailing list to disseminate his dispatches and will continue as special correspondent for Flashpoints Radio.

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