Wounded Iraqis cope with lifelong scars

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - For generations to come, Iraqis will have to cope with the physical and mental scars of tens of thousands of people severely injured in the violence of the past four years.

A technician measures an artificial leg at a workshop in Baghdad's Artificial Limbs Centre, Dec. 11, 2007. REUTERS/Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud

They include thousands of amputees, many of them children.

The date, time and place that changed Ali Abdullah’s life is etched in his memory.

It was November 24, 2005. A Thursday morning. He was 13.

Ali’s father runs a parking lot south of Baghdad. On that day, he had agreed to let his only son open the business by himself for the first time. It was a proud moment.

Ali went to work. In the middle of the morning he stepped out for breakfast just as a car bomb exploded nearby. Shrapnel destroyed one of his legs and an eye, and peppered his chest with wounds.

Ali told his story while waiting for a new artificial leg to be fitted at the Baghdad Artificial Limbs Centre, one of the Iraqi capital’s two main prosthetics clinics.

“I came here to replace the old one because it became too small and I limp when I walk,” he said.

Ali arrived at the centre with a neighbor, a 23-year-old policeman hoping to be fitted with a prosthetic foot after losing his in a bombing at a checkpoint he was manning.

The Baghdad centre alone has registered 2,700 amputees since 2003. The cost of looking after them is high -- especially in the case of children, who will need to replace prosthetic limbs regularly as they grow.

“We mostly care for children. We try to provide them with the limb as soon as possible. We like to help them to return to school, to regain a normal life,” said Qassim Mohammed, the centre’s deputy director.


Besides the physical cost, there is a huge psychological toll.

“Some of them come here in despair, but we try to plant hope in them, because 50 percent of therapy is psychological,” said Hussein Majeed, one of about 20 technicians in the centre’s workshop, where the prosthetics are built using old machine tools, plaster casts, plastic and glue.

Saad al-Shaboutt, 65, said he now felt able to cope, two years after losing his leg to a bomb at Baghdad’s Shorja market.

“I reached the point when I wanted to commit suicide, but I am better now,” he said in the centre’s waiting room.

“I am a manager at Iraqi Airways. I was about to be transferred to be the head of our office in Cairo, but I cancelled the transfer. Without a leg, how could I go?” he said.

Even doctors become emotionally involved.

Sadiq Ali, a psychotherapist at the centre who helps counsel victims to cope with a future of disability, recalled a young man he treated two months ago who had lost all four limbs.

“I was about to cry in front of him, but I thought that would hurt him. He was in good spirits, he accepted his fate.”

Wounded victims often need advanced reconstructive surgery. Yet Iraq has experienced a brain drain of medical specialists fleeing in fear after doctors were targeted by insurgents or kidnap and extortion gangs.

“I used to have 10 anesthesiologists, now I have four,” said one of Baghdad’s leading reconstructive surgeons, who spoke under condition neither he nor his hospital be named.

His hospital is able to perform only about 10 operations a week, down from 14-15 a week before the war, he said.

In the hospital corridor, 2-year-old Nabaa was being cradled by her father while waiting her turn to be examined by consultants.

She had been shot in the head with two bullets a year ago while driving to Baghdad along with a number of her relatives. She survived but the skin on the top of her head was severely damaged, leaving her bald.

“One of my brothers and my cousin were killed, my wife and my mother were wounded. My other brother was seriously wounded with 11 bullets sprayed all over his body, now he is lying in the hospital motionless,” said her father Mehdi, his child in one hand and her X-ray in the other.

Back at the Artificial Limbs Centre, technicians asked Ali to come back later in the month to get his new leg.

Before he left, he again recounted the story of the blast and told how the children at school often asked to see his prosthetic leg, but he shows it only to close friends.

“Of course I wish I did not go out on that day,” he said. “It was Thursday, at 10:30. November 24, 2005.”

Editing by Peter Graff and Janet Lawrence