Iraq war victims seek medical treatment in Jordan
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.”