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US-Iraq War Halts Emergency Hospital Construction

US-Iraq War Halts Emergency Hospital Construction

By Sonia Nettnin

This Iraqi boy is a victim of an anti-personnel mine. Victims of shrapnel wounds or landmines can suffer from burns, blindness and loss of limbs. In today's conflicts more than 90 per cent of victims are women, unarmed men and mostly children." (Photo courtesy of

Construction of a new surgical centre halted because of the violence in Iraq,
President of Emergency USA Alberto Colombi M.D. M.P.H. said.

His organization began building the centre next to the Al Husayin Hospital in Karbala, a Shiite city located 100 kilometers southwest of Baghdad. However, fire arms attacks, explosions and kidnappings caused construction to come to a standstill.

“We are working on further exploratory efforts to resume negotiation with whomever is in charge to continue the program,” Colombi said.

Although the new Salam (Peace) Centre is 40 per cent complete, the country’s security situation is horrendous, according to Colombi. As a result, neither Emergency’s medical staff nor the local construction workers hired to build the facility are spared of the violence.

“Honestly the Anglo-American occupation is not helping and is part of the problem rather than part of the solution,” he added.

The night before the construction team broke ground bombs and gun fire, close to the Polish military barracks nearby, killed three and injured scores of people.

Emergency provides victims of armed conflict free medical and surgical assistance; and they promote a culture of peace, solidarity and respect of human rights. As a private, independent, non-political organization they support war and landmine victims in Afghanistan, Algeria, Cambodia, Iraq, Palestine, and Sierra Leone.

“Emergency was born to resist and counter both the consequences and the logic of war by providing a practical, effective means of response…” Colombi explained. Emergency is free of political, ideological or religious discrimination.

Why do the 1.5 million people living in Karbala and in the city’s surrounding areas need this hospital?

After a decade of U.N. sanctions, hospitals, such as the one in Karbala, lacked medicines and medical equipment. Soon after the invasion, Emergency gave tons of pharmaceuticals to Al Husayin Hospital, whose patients suffered from the U.S. bombing and/or the explosive devices left in the streets.

Following the medical staff’s assessment of the number of people living in the area and the lack of facilities conducive for war, emergency and trauma surgery, Emergency suggested to local authorities to open a facility adjacent to the existing hospital.

What kinds of injuries are Iraqis experiencing?

In a recent screening of the NGO’s latest film, “Desert Rainbow. Emergency in Iraq,” Director Antonio DiPeppo explores the lives of Iraqis who suffer from bomb explosions and anti-personnel mines. While Iraqi farmers and sheepherders work their land - their sole sustenance - they fall victim to landmines.

“The desert is even more of a desert after the war,” the narrator says.

How Iraqi Civilians Became War Victims

When the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq began civilians trying to flee the bombing, such as the Iraqis of Kifri village, fell victim to landmines. In the finals days of the initial invasion, Emergency reported “…the number of mine victims registered has been ten times higher than the normal average of admissions.”

In the Erbil and Sulaimaniya area alone, three million people risk falling victim to approximately 10 million anti-personnel mines. The planting of these landmines began with the Iran-Iraq war, and continued when Iraqi militia fought with the Kurds. Over the years, these conflicts displaced two million people.

Statistics documented on reveal similar findings. The web site reports: “The most recent increase in landmine casualties, which were up a reported 90 percent in the Northern part of Iraq, occurred during the hostilities in 2003.” They explain that a recent mine action survey in Iraq identified 574 dangerous areas in 290 different communities in the region.

While thousands of Iraqis live as refugees in neighboring countries, landmines make it more difficult for their return to Iraq, their homeland, while it remains mine-infested.

In Erbil, an anti-personnel mine exploded on Ali, 19, and it burned his entire body. Ali walked three miles before he found someone to help him. A photo of Ali shows him with raw skin and still standing. Emergency’s surgical centre for war victims in Erbil has an intensive care burn unit for victims like Ali, and they provide war surgery.

Since 1995, Emergency’s Iraq centres and first aid posts – located in Baghdad, Erbil, Diana, Dohuk, Karbala, and Sulaimaniya – treated more than 280,000 cases. Their 24 FAPs are in the following towns: Akra, Azady, Ble, Chamchamal, Choman, Derbendikhan, Dukan, Halabja, Kalak, Khabat, Khormal, Kifri, Kirkuk, Koya, Makhmour, Mawat, Mergasur, Penjwen, Qallachollan, Qalladiza, Ranya, Sidakan, Soran, and Tawela.

Patients suffering severe injuries are referred to the surgical centres.

In Halabja, a bomb exploded near Asuda, a five-year-old girl. As a result, she lost her right hand. In Sulaimaniya she received treatment in Emergency’s pediatric burn unit.

Pictures of hopes and fears

Also in Sulaimaniya, the walls of the centre’s playroom contain colored drawings. They illustrate children’s experiences with violence and destruction.

One picture reveals a body encompassed by a pool of blood and dead bodies in the street. In another drawing, people play ball under the sun. Other pictures show people shooting at other people, or an ambulance driving to the wounded. Their art work demonstrates through no choice of their own, these children are growing up surrounded by war.

Besides children facilities, the centre has a clinic that constructs prostheses and orthopedic devices. The social reintegration program offers professional training for persons with disabilities.

During a physiotherapy session, men who lost their legs lie on floor mats for physical rehabilitative exercises. Their physical therapist tells them to lift their artificial limbs. While they wrap their hands under their hamstrings, they hold their new legs in mid-air.

Years of growth and process

If a child loses a leg, she returns to the centre for prosthetic replacements. According to, “An adult must replace prosthesis every two to three years and a child must have a new one every six months to a year.” Therefore, reconstruction of an amputee’s life is an ongoing process.

During four-month programs students learn about tailoring, leather, blacksmith, carpentry, or shoes. After they complete training in their new trade, the centre has a graduation ceremony. Then, trainees receive financial support, so they can open business workshops in their areas of residence.

After children received treatment for past war injuries, they can enroll in the centre’s trade programs as young adults. Sometimes, former patients visit the centre, which can complete the healing process.

In Iraq, Emergency centres and FAPs employ 835 national staff, which includes doctors, paramedics and service workers. In the Northern Iraq city of Diana, local Health Authorities manage the centre.

U.S.-British Invasion

After the U.S.-British invasion, looters plundered resources from Baghdad’s Al Kindi Hospital. In response, Emergency brought 45,000 litres of fuel for generators, 30 tons of pharmaceuticals, along with pillows, mattresses, and other medical equipment.

The organization provides supplies, free surgical instructions and medicines to other hospitals in the area. In 2003, two new burn units became operable in Sulaimaniya and Erbil because of the extremely high number of burn cases.

Emergency reports that “90 per cent of child burn victims suffer accidents in the home caused by boiling liquids…or gas stove explosions. The precarious living conditions… force women to cook with improvised equipment directly on the floor, within the reach of small children.”

Emergency has ongoing projects in the cities of Anabah, Kabul and Laskar-gah in Afghanistan; Battamborg, Cambodia; Freetown, Sierra Leone; and Darfur, Sudan. The organization hires expatriate surgeons, who can choose from a range of locations.

Throughout these war-torn regions Emergency treated over a million and a half cases. They hire and train local staff, thereby maintaining a long-term presence within communities.

The total cost of the Salam Surgical Centre is approximately $1.7 M – if Iraq stabilizes for its completion.


Sonia Nettnin is a freelance writer. Her articles and reviews demonstrate civic journalism, with a focus on international social, economic, humanitarian, gender, and political issues. Media coverage of conflicts from these perspectives develops awareness in public opinion.

Nettnin received her bachelor's degree in English literature and writing. She did master's work in journalism. Moreover, Nettnin approaches her writing from a working woman's perspective, since working began for her at an early age.

She is a poet, a violinist and she studied professional dance. As a writer, the arts are an integral part of her sensibility. Her work has been published in the Palestine Chronicle, Scoop Media and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. She lives in Chicago.

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