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IRAQ: Medical Facilities, Pigeons & Propaganda.

Helen Williams | 09.09.2004 07:37 | Anti-militarism | Indymedia | Repression

Helen visits Al-Nahrwan, 30 km from Baghdad. Here she visits a rudimentary clinic. Operations are as little as $3. There is, however, no safety net if things go wrong. There is no anaesthetic, just Diazapam. The procedures were carried out professionally, with what little facilities were available. However it simply isn't acceptable that Iraqis should have this as a medical service.

Hi Bagdad. 25th August 2004

This is the story of a recent trip to our friend's, Mohanned's, home in Al Nahrwan. We go there often, and this particular trip happened several weeks ago. I'm sorry that this report is a little late, but events recently have sort of pushed it 'down the line'. Towards the end of the report, some of the medical descriptions are a bit disturbing. They are however very real.

It was Mohanned's birthday and we wanted to take him some presents. We took him a Metallica video CD, a huge 10 kilo water melon (needing two arms to carry it) and a box of posh sweets. I don't usually discuss how much presents cost, but here I will make an exception: the whole lot came to 4750 dinar (1.90 pounds).

As were were going on our own, we decided to take a taxi the whole 30 kms for 5000 dinar (2 pounds), instead of messing about with a bus to New Bagdad and there changing to a minibus to go to Al Nahrwan - New Bagdad is not the best of areas to hang around in.
The taxi driver, an old man, took us from Kerrada, but kept telling us that he thought the bridge at 9th (7th) April was shut. As we approached the bridge, there was the usual build up of traffic - it takes around 10 minutes to get over the bridge with this traffic. The taxi driver refused to go any further because of this little bit of traffic. We were furious. He wanted to drop a Western woman off here on the side of the dangerous highway. We made him return about 1 km to some policemen we had seen in the central reservation of the road. So we took our chances with the police, who were actually really nice ones. I think they liked being called on to protect a foreign woman and they took it upon themselves to find our onward transport to Al Nahrwan. I asked them if they felt in any extra danger since the 'Transfer of Power'. They said "Not really, things just carried on". They appreciated that they were in the front line, potential targets, and, when I asked them how they felt about this, they replied with that much used Iraqi phrase "What can we do?" They continued "We didn't do anything to start these problems".

After about 10 minutes they stopped a dark blue estate car - it was two men they knew, who also knew Mohanned by sight. We thanked the police, got into the car, noticing a sheep's skin and skull in the back of the car as we did. The car itself stank of dead flesh. The two men driving us, Ayad and Ahmed (the driver) were slaughtermen, but really shoudn't have been, they were so nice. They used to deliver lamb to the butcher opposite our appartment, but due to the worsening security situation since the war, they stopped working in Bagdad and now only work in Al Nahrwan and the surrounding area. As they drove along the dusty road, they talked and talked, even foregoing their own errands in Al Nahrwan market - they wanted to show me how nice Iraqis are and take us straight to Mohanned's safely even though they had things to do. I insisted that they did their jobs, but they wouldn't hear of it.
Ahmed, the driver, told us how he had been in prison for 4 years for refusing to serve in Saddam's army.
Ayad, his brother, colleague and passenger, had managed to dodge the army for 7 years until he was caught and imprisoned for 2 or 3 months. He paid money to secure his release and then ended up in the army for the war, stationed in Basra. During the war he escaped from the army again.
Clearly no fans of Saddam, they said how things, especially security, had been better under the old regime. They thought that security had been okay after the war for a while, but since then things have been getting steadily worse and they fear that things will just get worse and worse from now on. They both fully supported the Mujahadeen in Fallujah and the Mahdi Army in the South, saying that they were doing a good job trying to resist because "If no one resists or fights back, America will just have an easy ride - going into houses, killing people, raping women and stealing."
Arriving in Al Nahrwan, somehow we directed them down a street too early. We were followed by two creeps in another car which overtook and stopped in front of us. I had a bad feeling about them, as did Wejdy and our two new friends. Ahmed talked to one of the men who had approached our car. He explained about Mohanned and the man tried to make out that Mohanned lived over here and so on - pointing down a side road. We watched as Ahmed went with the man, the man pointing here and there. Ayad turned to us, saying not to worry - the man was a sex creep, had seen me and was hoping I would leave the safety of the car and go on foot to where he was suggesting Mohanned's house was. Ayad said Ahmed was just going along with him to get rid of him, they were not going to drop us off anywhere other than Mohanned's and, even though they had only just met us, he and Ahmed would be slaughtered and have their heads cut off before they would let anything bad happen to us. Comforted by this declaration, I was still much happier when Ahemd returned to the car, having got rid of the creep. We turned around and took the right road for Mohanned's - about 30 seconds drive away, and in a completely different direction to the one which the creep wanted us to take. We made sure that he was not following and we were taken right to Mohanned's gate - Ahmed and Ayad would not leave us until the gate was opened and we were safely inside. We thanked them so much and went indoors.

It's lovely at Mohanned's - one of my favorite places in all Iraq. His family are very kind, welcoming and friendly and all day, being Mohanned's birthday, many friends kept calling round. We had wonderful food - his mother loves feeding us because we are so cheap to feed, being vegan. We play games, watch movies and talk, talk, talk about all sorts of things - politics, veganism, the situation in Iraq and the world and what's to be done about it all. Mohanned and his sister speak some English, but Wejdy has a hard time keeping up sometimes when the discussion gets over lively and, of course, he wants to add his opinion too, not just translate!
And, of course, we get to sleep on the cool roof, in the night air of the desert. This time there was no full moon and the stars were clearer than even before. As we tried to sleep, it seemed that there were 5000 desert dogs howling the night away. But it's a good night's sleep in Al Nahrwan on the roof. Until 6.20 am that is - if the sunrise doesn't wake you, the next door neighbour whistling to his pigeons will.
Pigeon fancying in Iraq, although an unnecessary use of birds for pleasure, is very different to the cruel past-time it has become in the UK and other countries. People here have around 20 or 30 tame pigeons which live in the open on their roof, only ever being caged if the neighbourhood is full of cats. They are never raced, just exercised, which involves someone whistling to them to make them fly. This the pigeons do, swooping in wide circles around their home and, as in this case, early in the morning, as it is Summer.The sport or game comes in the form of trying to 'steal' one of your neighbour's birds. I watched as the boy on the next roof encouraged and enticed a pigeon from his neighbour's flock to join his own. Then it happened and the boy caught his neighbour's pigeon. He will now sell it to a third neighbour, who will invariably see this pigeon return to its first home as soon as it takes off. This strange merry-go-round of 'theft' and sale and return of bird goes on all the time and no one gets upset or angry - it's what happens - pigeon fancying Iraqi style!
Except sometimes it gets nasty. Say a man catches someone else's pigeon and it does not get returned on the merry-go-round, the man who lost his pigeon could well take revenge and capture around 6 of his rival's pigeons and kill them. Although this is really rare, when I moved into the appartment I live in now, I saw 6 dead pigeons on the shop roof outside my bedroom window. I didn't know why at first. Then I understood. From the appartment block roof next door I often hear the early morning pigeon whistles. I guess the man there had nabbed 6 of his rival's pigeons and killed them - the pigeons paying the ultimate price for a game gone wrong and stupid rivalry. They are not fit to keep birds. The dead pigeons have kept the rats well fed for weeks and I am assured that this disgusting, barbaric cruelty is a rare occurance.

Back to Al Nahrwan...
Mohanned's mum was already up. she had been baking us a vegan cake for breakfast - no eggs, no milk and absolutely delicious.
During our stay, I was completely fussed over and spoilt by Mohanned's sisters. I was taken away to try on clothes, look at books and to practise Arabic. I ended up helping Donia, 19, learn her geography - I was naming countries in Africa as she labelled them. Then I was given pillow cases and bed sheets and having clothes made for me by Azhar, Mohanned's older sister - who busily measured me up!
I was shown an English school text book which I found highly entertaining. Amid pages about the Smith family going on holiday/on a picnic/shopping or Peter buying a watch, there appeared the odd paragraph completely out of context. These paragraphs would praise Saddam 'our beloved leader', or say how wonderful oil production was now it was in the hands of the Iraqi people instead of greedy Western companies. And there were others supporting Palestine and denouncing Israel. Then two complete chapters were given over to the regime - one about the Iraqi army and what an important honour it was to serve and another about the Iran/Iraq War and Iraq's fine victory there!

Mohanned's mother is a midwife. She used to be a nurse in the hospital, but now works at home delivering babies for women who cannot afford to go to hospital or for women with emergency births. She delivers 4 or 5 babies a month just in this area of Al Nahrwan. Azhar is taking over the reins from mum, treating women in the home who cannot afford hospital treatment or cannot afford the journey to and from hospital. Over the weekend,Azhar was eager for me to meet as many of her patients as possible and watch their treatment.
The first patient I met was being treated in the kitchen-come-pharmacy. She was an old lady, dressed in her black chadoor and suffering from low blood pressure. I watched as Azhar carefully set up a saline solution drip in the lady's arm, sitting next to me. The woman was not at all bothered about my presense in the room - she was far more interested in my hair than in what was going on in her arm!
Two women in the neighbourhood had sadly miscarried that morning. I met the first lady, Fatima, with her mother. She had miscarried a couple of hours ago and was sitting here in front of me now with a 6 month old stillborn baby in her tummy. This was Fatima's first pregnancy - her first two children had been born live and healthy - and I met one of them here, beautiful 2 year old Hasan. He was lying in Fatima's arms, eyes wide open, dark and staring at me. Fatima was to return this evening at 8 pm to deliver her stillborn baby and undergo a D and C (dilatation and cauterization or, to be more accurate, evacuation of the products of conception).
The second lady, Noor, arrived at the house with a friend, both wrapped in black chadoors in the desert's 50 degrees heat. Noor was 2 months pregnant and had also miscarried this morning and had come to see Azhar for a D and C. Azhar insisted that I watch her perform the operation, with Noor's kind consent. I followed them into the bedroom where Noor's friend left us with Noor, Azhar and Donia. Here Noor sat on the bed and removed her chadoor to reveal a pretty orange dress. Azhar checked her blood pressure, breathing and pulse and placed a cannula in her arm into which she injected 2 viles of diazepam. The diazepam made Noor sleepy - the procedure was to be carried out under the influence of the diazepam, not under local or general anaesthetic. Then Noor lay down on a piece of polythene over a mattress on the floor and Donia placed a bit of black cloth over her eyes. Azhar used swabs soaked in saline solution held by long metal tongs to clean Noor's womb and take away the remains of the dead two month old foetus. The dirty swabs were simply and carefully placed into a carrier bag in a small bin next to Azhar. Swab after swab were used and poor Noor, despite the diazepam, was clearly in pain. Azhar did not stop until the swabs came out clean. Throughout the procedure blood pressure, breathing and pulse were regularly checked. After it was over, Donia carefully helped Noor to sit up and her friend was called back into the room. They both helped Noor to stand. She stood up and nearly fell backwards as she stepped towards the bed. There they put some water over her face. Noor nearly fainted again. After a few minutes Noor's friend and Azhar helped her to her feet, put her chadoor on and helped her out of the bedroom and house and again poor Noor almost fell back. I was amazed by the speed of it all and on Azhar's return I asked her about it. Azhar explained that Noor would go home to sleep, but that, by tonight, she would be up and about cooking and carrying on as normal as if nothing had happened. And also, Noor could get pregnant again in 40 days, if she wanted to.
There was no grieving or mourning for the lost baby. Miscarriages are not considered sad events in Iraq - they just happen, they are common and the women get on with their lives on the same day. Families are big - 8 or 10 children is normal and within that number of children a woman has generally suffered one or more miscarriages. It is as if, with that large number of children, losing one to still birth is no great loss. Having said that, if a baby is born whole, but dead, after 6 months, a family will clothe, name and bury the baby, just as we do in Britain. But things are different for the women here, they cope and they cope alone. Their husbands do not accompany them to operations like the one above and fathers are never present at the birth of a child. And another thing - pain does not seem to be felt and is certainly not shown in the same way here - either physical or mental - and everyone is suffering for one reason or another. So everyone has pain, life is harder and it makes people stronger.
Azhar does these operations and treats these patients in the home as there is no alternative. Noor would have had to pay $20 for the same treatment in hospital - D and C and removal of a baby, which is $20 she does not have, being a poor Bedouin woman. Azhar takes just $3 which barely covers the cost of the diazepam, swabs, saline solution etc. Azhar provides a vital, local community service for poor women who cannot afford to have the treatment they require in a hospital. And the treatment was good, hygenic and thorough - Azhar is an excellent, competant nurse (at sister grade). I saw nothing to alarm me except the basic nature of the treatment and the fact that Noor would be working as normal this evening after just a short rest.
Just one thing bothered me. What if something had gone wrong and Azhar had needed to use life saving medical equipment such as a life support machine, defibrillator, blood etc? Well, those things are not available to poor people here in Iraq are they? Just as they are not available to poor people anywhere in the world.
For now, thank goodness that neighbourhood has Azhar, where would they be without her?


On a later visit to Mohanned's, we found the main big visiting room cut in half - why? Well, Mohanned had been busy building walls to create a home pharmacy for Azhar. No more kitchen shelves pharmacy - Azhar will now have her own proper room to provide an even better service with more choices for her community. She is very excited about the project.
She told me a very sad story saying "If only you had arrived here this morning to see this". A woman in labour had arrived at the house with her husband in the early hours of the morning. He had gone home (as Iraqi men do) and his wife had given birth to a healthy baby boy. He returned with his wife's mother (his mother-in-law) early in the morning to find his wife and new born son doing well. Then the wife's mohter, the grandmother of this dear little baby started screaming and shouting: "We have too many boys in the family - 13. what are we going to do with this one? Leave him here, we don't want him". In fact her daughter did already have two sons. But she and her husband were both happy to have another, happy to have a healthy baby and both of them certainly wanted to take him home. But grandmother wasn't having any of it - she made her own daughter's husband leave his wife and baby saying that she would find him another wife - her daughter was no good for him - just because she had given birth to another son! His wife refused to leave her new born baby and stayed in Mohanned's house. Anyway, later on, the husband managed to escape his mother-in-law and return to collect his wife and new baby son.
What does this show? Crazy mother-in-laws, blase attitude to pregnancy and birth (ie people have so many babies - 'leave this one, you'll have a girl next time'), poverty or messed up society - probably all four.

All for now
Helen Williams,
Living amoungst Iraqis in Bagdad,
From Newport, South Wales.

Helen Williams