One coffee and a world away

In Baghdad there are no non-combatants. Any day, anyone can be a target in a city where the final death toll depends on who’s counting. Last month, the city lost one more of its elite professionals. Now resident in Bahrain, one man shares his story of how he lost the country he never turned his back on.

The calm of a sunset over the Tigris belies the chaos on the streets of Baghdad

Dr Akif Khalil Al-Alousi has seen it all in Iraq. He has lived through the bloody war with Iran, seen Saddam Hussein come and go and witnessed US led coalition troops bomb, or on patrol, in his country – twice. Now, he says, Iraq is no longer a country he recognises, let alone one he could love and that the situation in Baghdad has never been so grim. “There is no system, only chaos. They are not fighting for power, not in the long term. They are fighting to stay alive today. Tomorrow they will wake up and fight all over again.”

In a deserted coffee shop in Juffair, Dr Alousi was instantly recognisable; stocky rather than the “short fat man” he had laughingly described himself as on the phone. In other circumstances he would be described as cuddly, a bear that a child might squeeze when frightened. But we were here to talk about death.

In the second week of July, just over 600 Iraqi civilian and security force personnel had been reported as dead already that month. It is an approximate figure; only the deaths of 34 coalition troops had been confirmed because only their governments are actually counting.

“The system in Iraq has totally collapsed. It was a house of cards under Saddam, one push and it all came crashing down.” Following the first Gulf war Dr Alousi, a “secular Iraqi” watched as his beloved health service – once the jewel in an otherwise tarnished crown – was starved to death, abased and forced to beg for scraps. “The sanctions did not hurt the government, they hurt only the people. Our health service was one of the best in the region but after the sanctions began to bite, the money dried up. Systems that broke were never repaired or replaced. Supplies stopped coming. We learnt to improvise. If there was none left of that, we would use this, when that ran out, we used something else.” Offered a comparison to a triage, or field hospital, Dr Alousi says instead, “By 2003, it was like working in a field.”

More recently, in the new liberated Iraq, the power in Sadr City where he worked as a pathologist at the Kindi teaching hospital is not stable; blackouts are common and surgeries are often interrupted. However neither this, nor the need for constant invention, was the greatest hindrance to the provision of medical care. “Hospitals are no longer a sanctuary in Baghdad. People are murdered, raped and kidnapped there, people will exhort money there.” He says he lost count of the number of times patients have been brought in and live grenades have been found in the pockets of those they are attempting to save. “We didn’t know if they were just left over from that mornings’ battle, or whether they intended to detonate it in the hospital.” One patient was removed from an operating table by his enemies only to be returned later, dead, the job finished.

“They are trying to prove that the system cannot work. They are destroying everything, the hospitals, the universities; oil pipelines are attacked, the oil stolen and sold on the black market to buy more guns. People are threatened, kidnapped and killed.” Dr Alousi has lost six close friends in the past six months. In what is easily one of the hardest questions to ask someone not a part of the criminal underworld or military service, yet what has to be asked – were his friends’ deaths a result of indiscriminate violence or targeted? “Targeted,” comes the reply, “They were killed by the Sunni’s or the Shia because they were Shia or Sunni.”

The story woven over hot coffee, between teenager’s talk about girls and boys and plans for the weekend, is both appalling and compelling, the reality it forms heroic and horrific.

Dr Alousi had been in Bahrain for a little less than three weeks when I met him, working at the Bahrain Specialist Hospital. His wife, Ebtisam, is still in Iraq. She and their younger children live in Sulimaniyeh, in the relative safety of the Kurdish North. His two older children remain in Baghdad. “I worry about them every day and tell them to leave. But they won’t.”

He has said on many occasions that he would never leave Iraq. As a regular contributor to the BBC’s World Service he remained adamant that he would “not be forced from his home.” He can trace his family back nine generations through 400 years. The house that his forefathers built is still standing. But left Baghdad, he has.

“It is not just the danger; it is the sense of futility. I could not do my work; it was useless, every day we were battling just to do our jobs.” Almost murmuring under the happy babble of young lives, Dr Alousi confides, “It is also the terrible isolation. Your friends are either dead or gone and there is no life left on the streets. Around 2pm things begin to get crazy. Anyone out after curfew will shoot first and ask questions later. You are a prisoner in your own home.”

The danger levels are unimaginably high. “There was a direct threat upon my life. A letter was delivered to my office, hand written and unsigned, warning me that ‘my filthy blood was cheap and would be spilled if I did not leave my job.’” It was not the first time Dr Alousi had been threatened but this time his wife convinced him that it was time to leave; first to Sulimaniyeh and now Bahrain. “This is my last chance to finish the work I love, to make a difference.” In his low, gravely voice a waver hints at a search for a better time, where his family can be together in the city his ancestors dwelt in for centuries. Whose fault can it be when this number of people are dying everyday, when a third of the country’s medical professionals have simply left Iraq and the government’s only recourse to prevent any further exodus is to withhold diplomas from newly graduated medical students, when all semblance of a normal life is slowly grinding to a halt or being shot in the market and exploded with bombs? Dr Alousi does not deal in blame – history is too long and too complicated for there to be any sense left in accusations. “The militia are just copying the Americans who marched in with guns asserting their might. This is where they learned that force was important.” He supports the removal of Saddam but with the caveat that, “The only thing worse than living in a state run by a dictator is having no state at all. That’s what we have now and everyone seems powerless to change that.”

Despite the earth shattering trauma he describes in raw detail, hope has not completely deserted Dr Alousi. Whilst his family is safe, he can still believe in the Iraq he once loved. As Baghdad writhes and heaves in its struggle to stand tall again, there is a future in Sulimaniyeh, “There is stability there, there is a government and people abide by laws. My wife and children are safe there; it is like the Iraq I loved.”

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