Iraq war victims seek medical treatment in Jordan

Sunday 09/04/2017
The long road to treatment. An Iraqi patient is seen at a hotel in Amman.(AP)

London - War-torn Iraq has seemingly resorted to outsourcing a portion of its medi­cal and surgical care.

“Through no fault of our own [Iraqi physicians], a growing num­ber of Iraq’s war-wounded civilians are travelling to Jordan for treat­ment,” Dr Omar al-Ani, a doctor at the Doctors without Borders (MSF) reconstructive hospital in Amman said in a telephone interview.

Ani’s hospital treats complex in­juries and lower-limb trauma that can cause permanent disabilities. Since its opening in 2006, more than 2,400 patients out of 4,500 treated have come from Iraq and 70-80% of the surgeons are from the country.

While Iraqis comprise the over­whelming majority of patients, the hospital has also welcomed civil­ians from Syria, Gaza and Yemen.

MSF’s headquarters in Baghdad and its roving field doctors are vi­tal for those who cannot get health care services in Iraq, where unre­lenting violence has caused medical needs to surge.

“As the medical load increases in times of war,” Ani said, “local hos­pitals lack the infrastructure, ad­equate facilities, instruments and medicine to absorb patients and re­spond to war-related injuries.”

“In very rare cases we offer treat­ment to Iraqi forces, army cadre and members of the police but the pro­gramme is primarily set up to offer care to civilians,” he added.

“Patients without access to spe­cialised care in their countries are brought here. We treat broken bones and fractures, provide reconstruc­tive and plastic surgery, physiother­apy and psychosocial support.”

The average duration of a pa­tient’s stay is 4-6 months. After being treated, they are returned to wherever MSF met them, be it a bor­der point or an airport.

The breakdown of state authority in Iraq’s western provinces, where the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) is concentrated, has led to a surge in violence. Ani fled his home town in Anbar province in 2014, re­locating with his wife and daughter to Baghdad, where he joined the MSF team.

Transferring patients from war zones to safe zones where treat­ment can begin “isn’t so simple”, Ani said.

“Patients are picked up by field doctors, who document the pa­tient’s case and medical history and send their file electronically to us in Amman. Every Tuesday, a medical committee congregates to discuss and agree on the cases MSF will ac­cept,” he said.

The conflict has made conditions increasingly desperate. Civilians find themselves trapped between terrorists on the ground and whis­tling shells dropped by Iraq’s coali­tion partners above.

Airwars, a group that records war-time casualties, has documented the death of 250-370 civilians in the campaign to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

Outsourcing patients to Jordan has become a final resort, Dr Thaer Hsain, a former MSF doctor who worked in Syria, said. “Supply routes are always being cut” in both Iraq and Syria.

Hsain outlined three stages of care in times of war: Diagnostic, me­dicinal and procedural. He stressed that “specialised surgery cannot be performed in the absence of spe­cialised equipment and services”.

The coalition forces’ repeated failure to distinguish between civil­ians and combatants when launch­ing strikes is one of the many ways innocent civilians bear the cost of the war.

Deaths do not only occur in areas of combat. Residents making their way out of ISIS-held territories have been killed in what is termed “col­lateral damage” or were deliberate­ly targeted by liberating forces.

Rights groups have called on the Iraqi government to prioritise the protection of civilians.

Ani recounted a case that sticks with him. “She was a young baby girl from al-Qaim, whose bone and tendon were exposed due to air strikes,” he said, adding that MSF worked to transfer her to Baghdad in an ambulance despite the hurdles encountered at checkpoints.

Their team is looking to expand further to the north-west where there is an even greater need for treatment.

“We have a new project we are hoping to launch in the upcoming months taking the form of a reha­bilitation centre in northern Iraq, offering physiotherapeutic and psy­chosocial support. Treatment will be offered to time-sensitive cases that can later be referred to us in Amman if further complications emerge,” Ani said.

“We work so long as there is a need for reconstructive surgery,” he said. “Sometimes news of success stories reaches us, although the faces of those people are unknown to us.”