'They came with guns and took everything'

Kim Sengupta reports from a Baghdad hospital where armed looters stole light fittings, stethoscopes and even the beds that the patients were lying in
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The Independent Online

The al-Kindi hospital was deserted yesterday morning apart from a few members of the medical staff who had braved a visit after staying away for the last few days. They walked through the wards where the beds and stretchers had been ransacked by looters, and medicine cabinets stripped bare.

It was the same scene at most of the other hospitals and clinics throughout Baghdad. In another day of murderous violence, with US forces treating much of the city as a free-fire zone, and Iraqis settling scores among themselves, the casualties mounted as the medical resources continued to wither away.

The al-Kindi is the premier neurological hospital in the Iraqi capital, with 400 beds. In the days of remorseless American bombing and the subsequent ground advance it overflowed with the dead and the maimed.

As the US forces completed their capture of Baghdad, and peace and harmony was supposed to break out among the grateful locals, the anarchy began. While Marines stood by and watched, the mob descended, first on the offices and homes of the regime, then on shops and hotels, and then on the hospitals.

Médecins Sans Frontières, the medical aid agency, had made donations of medicine and equipment to al-Kindi. All that has now gone. Standing in an operating theatre from where the beds, equipment and even the light fittings had been stripped, Ahmed Ali Hassan, 39, a laboratory technician, said: "They came with guns, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop them. There were a few leaders who directed the taking of the most expensive equipment, I think they were Shias, maybe from Saddam City. Then the ordinary people came and took the rest. I saw an old man walk away with three sets of stethoscopes."

Dr Ahmed Asafi, a 27-year-old paediatrician, had come in yesterday morning after hearing that the looters and gunmen had gone. "There is not a lot left to take," he said. "Patients from this hospital have been sent to other ones, and the less serious cases sent home with prescriptions. We are lacking almost every kind of medicine."

As he spoke, a US armoured vehicle rolled up outside, and three Marines came in. A centre had been set up at the Ministry of Oil building to co-ordinate relief efforts.

"We are here to instil confidence, and make sure that any problem gets dealt with," said Sergeant Tylon Wilder from California. "Yessir, that is what we are here to do, to see what the problem is."

Watching him, one doctor whispered: "I will tell you what the problem is – the Americans came and smashed up our country. We have been dealing with what they had done for the last few weeks – the women and children bombed, people shot at road checkpoints for no reason, maybe for fun."

The antenatal wing of the Yamoukh hospital was hit during the bombing. The looters had been here as well, and taken everything from incubators to generators. "Most of the staff are still too afraid to come back," said Amira al-Nasr, a nurse. "It is strange that this hospital kept operating during the bombing, and the problem began after the Americans took over the city."

Saddam General in Saddam City, the worst-equipped hospital in the most violent and, in the present situation, most inaccessible slum in Baghdad, has been receiving most of the transferred patients. Among them, from al-Kindi, is Ali Ismail Abbas, the 12-year-old victim of a US missile attack who had to have both his arms amputated and who has been the subject of much British media attention.

Saddam General was about to be looted on Thursday when US tanks arrived. They are now parked outside, and the danger from the mob has abated. But Dr Moufak Gabriel, the director, pointed out the hospital has 300 beds and has been receiving 200 patients a day.

"We are coping for the time being because we have to," he said. "But this cannot go on. The Americans must help open the other hospitals or make sure we get supplies. Otherwise I do not know what is going to happen."

Mustafa al-Rashid and his wife Samia arrived with their daughter, who had fallen and broken a hand. On the way, they claimed, they had been shot at by an American patrol, and then robbed of 30,000 dinars (about $30) at a Shia checkpoint. "Welcome to Baghdad after liberation, welcome," said Mr al-Rashid.