Young Iraqi surgeon testifies about the horrors of the Iraq war
Barbara Debusschere, De Morgen (Belgium), 26 November 2005
translated 07 December 2005
The Iraqi surgeon Salam Ismael (29) has piles of pictures and interviews with
survivors and witnesses that show that many Iraqi civilians and doctors were
victims of much more than 'collateral damage’, as was the case with the
US attacks on Fallujah. "Doctors and patients were killed, ambulances were
attacked. They used illegal weapons such as napalm, and even those who surrendered
and dared to move, were shot."
"I want to return to Iraq soon. In Fallujah, I’m going to help set
up a water purification plant, and in Hadeetha, I want to help build a new hospital",
Ismael says. It sounds like urgent. A member of the Doctors for Iraq Society,
Ismael is thin and has those typical long, fine surgeon’s fingers. But
in Iraq, Ismael has already survived the worst situations. His organisation
is gathering evidence of human rights violations under occupation. He was invited
to Brussels by the Belgian NGO 'Medical Aid for the Third World’, in order
to draw attention to the war crimes being committed in Iraq.
Right before he would show his images to demonstrate that indeed illegal chemical
weapons had been used by the US during the second siege of Fallujah, Dr. Ismael
finds the time to tell his story. He doesn’t know where to start. But
then comes an avalanche of stories, images, and examples to underscore his point.
"The breaches of medical neutrality must stop. Shooting at doctors and
ambulances is a crime."
Were you yourself in those ambulances?
"Yes. After my studies in the Baghdad Medical School, I wanted to specialise
in orthopaedic surgery, but everything changed with the US invasion. Instead
of pursuing my studies, I offered my services as a volunteer doctor, and that
is what I’m still doing today.
"It often happened that ambulances were shot at by US snipers, like in
Fallujah. During the first siege, one day we went to see an injured family.
The Americans occupied the street. We had to proceed just six meters in order
to get to those people, but every time we tried to cross the street, it rained
bullets on the wall across. One of my colleagues finally dared to go. He counted
to three and, in his white coat, ran toward the wounded man, with the bullets
flying. He took the man, folded cardboard around his body and attached a rope
to it. He threw us the rope, counted again to three, and we pulled the patient
toward us. Again, bullets drove into the wall."
How did you work during the first siege of Fallujah, in April 2004?
"The Americans had cut the city’s access to the hospital, so we
had to set up a field hospital. Those were terrible days. We had to amputate
legs with nothing but heavily diluted local anaesthetics. We had to suture wounds
with common thread and needles. During and right after the fourth night, the
night of the cluster bombs, we were no longer doctors, but gatherers of limbs.
We looked out for heads that could fit with other body parts. One man only had
a collection of limbs as the last remembrance of his wife and children. After
two weeks a ceasefire was installed. But it was no real ceasefire, as the snipers
came into action. People were annihilated just like that, in the streets, everywhere."
Before the second siege, in November 2004, everyone was called upon to leave
the city. But even then, many civilians died.
"They always do that, they ask women and children to leave a city before
the attack. But that is sheer nonsense, as there are no provisions for them
whatsoever. Many people prefer to take shelter in their homes. But during the
second attack, illegal weapons such as napalm were used, killing people in their
homes as well. And yet, whoever obeyed, would also be killed. (long silence)
"It is one of those catastrophes of which we have chilling testimonies.
A family of eight obeyed and left the city, toward the assembly point the Americans
had indicated. They walked one behind the other, with a white flag, hoping to
quietly save their lives. But suddenly, the Americans started to shoot at the
families at the assembly point. A man who survived witnessed his wife, his children
and his father being shot, one after the other. He was injured himself, but
after a couple of hours he found the strength to wave for help. After which
they shoot at him once more."
What did you do during that second attack?
"I tried to help wherever I could. But during the second siege we were
not allowed to enter the city. Only later on we could. But yet, we tried to
get to the people in need. From inside the ambulance, we threw water containers
and bread at them. Which immediately got riddled with bullets. And that is only
the most innocent example of the serious breaches of medical neutrality committed
by mainly the Americans and their allies. The Geneva Conventions state that
the warring parties must respect and protect medical personnel, and give them
access to the patients. On their part, the doctors must be neutral and treat
any injured person. Well, we are accomplishing that task. I have treated Americans,
Iraqi’s, even insurgents.
"But many times, the soldiers attacked doctors and their patients, or
blocked and destroyed medical relief. Doctors were arrested while they were
operating. 'You are treating insurgents’, the soldiers yelled. The patients
were dying while the soldiers were beating up the doctors."
Did hospitals get bombed?
"Yes. Snipers took the main hospital of Hadeetha, in the West, during
the US military operation Matador, on May 7. They knew that surgical operations
were on-going. Doctors were arrested, they blew the rooms to pieces, and even
tanks entered the hospital. The entire medical stock was destroyed, the warehouse
burned for nine hours. I was working there, and we immediately started to reconstruct
the medical quarter, but on May 29, we were attacked again."
Was there no serious suspicion that insurgents were hiding there?
"No, because the soldiers always search the hospitals, they search every
corner. And yet, it is illegal to sabotage operations and medical assistance,
even if we would have been treating an insurgent. Medical services in war zones
are ridiculously senseless if you don’t have any protection, if your hospital
is bombed time and again, if your doctors are hit, if your ambulances are attacked."
Do only the Americans commit such violations?
"No. Also the Iraqi army and police, who have a lot of power. Some time
ago, they hit beat a doctor because he would not have treated a soldier well
enough. As colleagues started to protest, they, too, were maltreated. But in
all the evidence we have been able to gather, and which we intend to publish
in a report, it is mainly the Americans who violate medical neutrality. Which
is logical, for it is their invasion."
Can you always remain neutral yourselves?
"I am training young medical doctors, and I do that from the perspective
of medical neutrality. But as a doctor, that is not always easy. You are seeing
people that have been shot to pieces, and that makes you angry and defiant.
I am not affiliated to any political party, but as a medical doctor, I prefer
the Iraq from before the invasion. At that time, at least we had the resources
needed to do our job. Now there is nothing, and even the most fundamental human
rights are being violated. Every day the Americans are creating more enemies
by staying on, and by turning cities like Fallujah into one huge prison, where
people can only enter or leave through checkpoints. The waiting lines are long,
and an iris scan is required from everybody."
How is the situation now?
"Concerning Fallujah, I don’t understand how they are able to persevere
that long. The city is a prison. There is hardly any reconstruction, many people
are homeless and are sick. In Baghdad there are now some medical facilities,
but in the far-flung areas there are none. Everything has been destroyed. Apart
from the fact that we have received some new materials, the situation is getting
worse in the health centres. There’s an enormous brain drain. Doctors
who have been targeted are fleeing the country. All aid agencies have left Iraq
as well. I launched an appeal at the World Health Organisation. It is too bad
that we have to beg like that, but we can no longer manage the situation.
"The biggest problem right now is the corruption. Donor money is not reaching
us, the entire administration is corrupt. There are no more taxes now, and the
mafia is running all kinds of trade, of medicines and food. Spoiled food is
entering the country from Jordan and is being sold freely in Iraq. There is
no more supervision. Which renders even more people sick."
Do you believe that the tension between Sunni and Shia may lead to a civil
war once the US withdraws?
"No, that is ridiculous. Only the mass media and the Americans are saying
this. Look, we have lived together for centuries. Sunni and Shia get married,
have children, work together. It is the politicians who are creating tension,
in order to win seats. In real life there is cooperation among common people.
They do not experience the political ethnicity that is being fanned. And yes,
sometimes things get out of hand. But it is not the Americans who are going
to solve that. No, they just want to control everything, and they want to stay
on. They are already building military bases for after the retreat of their
troops. But that way, every day they are creating more enemies, they are reaping
"White phosphorous? Last year already we knew that the US killed civilians
One of the accusations that Salam Ismael’s organisations, the Doctors
for Iraq Society, wants to prove, is that the US has used illegal weapons
against civilians during the second siege of Fallujah. Ismael is hardly surprised
by the revelations on the Italian TV. "We have known all this for one
year already. We have been able to gather pictures from the South of the city,
from the hardest hit areas. We have been able to analyse 77 corpses. Even
from afar, you could already notice that chemical incendiary weapons had been
used against civilians. Our claim is that white phosphorous was used in combination
with napalm. If you mix napalm, which causes 4th degree burns, with white
phosphorous or magnesium, you create a burning effect of 3500°C. If that
product gets in touch with the body, it will burn away everything. That is
exactly what we saw.
"Because of the war against Iran, Iraqi doctors know the effects those
instances can have on the human body very well. You will indeed see clothes
that are intact, but exposed body parts that are completely burned, that have
disappeared. Napalm sticks to the body, making it work even better. Moreover,
it destroys the oxygen. We also have images of people having died in their
beds, at home, without any bullet wounds. Men, women, children. They have
a bluish aspect, or there is blood dripping from their mouths. Indications
of the use of instances such as napalm or white phosphorous.
"There have been other indications, too. After the attack, aid workers
were barred from entering the city for three days. Entire areas had been levelled
by bulldozers and covered with sand. Why? Look at our pictures, and you’ll