by Alissa J. Rubin | Concord Monitor Online | 15/11/2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Dr. Ahmed Ghanim's nightmarish week began with a phone call in the operating room of a triage center in downtown Fallujah.
On the line was the manager of the city's General Hospital. Iraqi national guardsmen and U.S. Marines, the manager said, had entered the hospital, handcuffed the doctors and were forcing the patients out to the parking lot.
The guardsmen "stole the mobile phones, the hospital safe where the money is kept and damaged the ambulances and cars," said Ghanim, an orthopedic surgeon who works at the hospital. "The Americans were more sympathetic with the hospital staff and . . . untied the doctors and allowed them to go outside with the patients."
But the worst was yet to come. In the coming days, Ghanim would narrowly escape a bombing, then run through his city's battle-torn streets. He would walk hungry and scared for miles, carrying with him memories of the people he could not save.
The fight for Fallujah began Nov. 7. The hospital, the city's main medical center, was seized that night by U.S. and Iraqi troops. Military commanders said it was taken to ensure that there was a medical treatment facility available to civilians and to make sure that insurgents could not exaggerate casualties.
As fighting raged for a week, few civilian accounts of the battle have been available, and there have been only scattered reports on casualties. But as combat eased, Ghanim and other survivors emerged and began to tell their stories.
"We were kicked out by the (Iraqi National Guard); even the Americans weren't as harsh as them," said Farhan Khalaf, 58, who had been at Fallujah General Hospital when it was seized.
"They were roughing up patients and tying up the doctors, hitting them in some instances,"he added. "They stole whatever valuables they could get their hands on, including money and cell phones. This is unacceptable. How could they do this against their own people?"
Last Monday came and went. On Tuesday, the bombing came closer to the city center. The doctors were busy.
"I was doing amputations for many patients. But I am an orthopedic surgeon; if a patient came to me with an abdominal injury, I could do nothing," he said, eyes cast down, close to tears. "We would bring the patient in, and we would have to let him die."
Electricity to the city was cut off. There was no water, no food, no fluids for the patients, Ghanim said. But the patients just kept coming.
"We were treating everyone. There were women, children, mujahids. I don't ask someone if they are a fighter before I treat them. I just take care of them," he said.
Late Tuesday, a bomb struck one side of the triage center. Ghanim ran out of the building.
A second bomb hit, crashing through the roof and destroying most of the facility. Ghanim believes it killed at least two or three of the young resident doctors working there and most of the patients.
"At that moment, I wished to die," he said. "It was a catastrophe."
Afterward, he said, he half-ran, half-wandered through Fallujah, dodging explosions that seemed to be everywhere. He took shelter in an empty house and did not move.
"I saw the injured people on the street, covered in blood, staggering, screaming, shouting, 'Help me! Help me!' but we could not get out and help them because we would be killed."
At one point, he looked out and saw a cousin in the street; he had been wounded. "I could not do anything for him, I could not move," Ghanim said. "He died. There was no mercy."
During a lull in the bombing, the doctor decided to try to leave Fallujah. As he made his way through the rubble-filled streets, some fighters, Fallujah natives like himself, recognized the surgeon. They showed him a way out. He walked with a companion - an anesthetist - along the river, heading north.
First they walked to Saglawiya, a nearby village, he said, then more than 12 miles to the next village. There, a car picked them up and drove them about three miles. They resumed walking, occasionally getting a lift from a passing vehicle.
It took them 36 hours, mostly on foot, to make it the more than 30 miles to Baghdad. They didn't sleep and ate only a few dates and a packet of biscuits.
Yesterday, as Ghanim recounted the week that was, he was clearly haunted by what might have been, and those he could not help.
"I think if the Americans let us treat the injured, even in the streets," he said, "we could have saved hundreds."
By ALISSA J. RUBIN
Los Angeles Times