Hospital visits the hardest

  • Nation
  • Tuesday, 22 Apr 2003

By Shahanaaz Habib in Baghdad

BAGHDAD: The sliding glass doors of my room have been taped with big Xs, and the curtains are half drawn. 

As noisy as it is outside, with bombs dropping, shelling, Apache helicopters and F18s flying by, or just the irritating sound of the generator running, I always leave the glass doors open. 

This may sound like a personal idiosyncrasy but it is not. It is a simple wartime precaution taken since the day I arrived from Amman on April 3. 

The open glass doors are to lessen pressure on the glass during a bombing. The tape is to hold the pieces together in case the glass shatters, and the drawn curtains are to protect me from flying glass pieces. 

But my sliding doors have not always been left open.  

On my first two nights here, because I did not know about the precautions, I slept with the doors firmly closed to shut out the thunderous noise of bombardment outside. 

After finding out about the need to keep the doors open, I got used to the noise and could sleep. 

A couple of times, when the US-led strikes were particularly heavy on the presidential palace just across the Tigris River from the Sheraton Hotel where I was staying, my bed and the floor shook violently, waking me up.  

RELIC HUNTERS: US soldiers using a netal hammer to break a fallen statue of Saddam Hussein into tiny pieces to take home as souvenirs.-Bernamapic

I jumped out of bed and watched the explosions for some time before climbing back to bed. 

The night in which I could hardly get any sleep was two days before US tanks rolled into the city to the square near the hotel, and brought down the statue of Saddam Hussein. 

That night, the attack came after 10pm and the sky and ground were red from countless hits and explosions. This is something I had seen only on television or movies, so I stayed glued to my window on the 11th floor for hours. 

The telephone rang and when I answered, it was Frederick, a French photographer staying a couple of floors below.  

“Stay away from the window. The attack is really close to the hotel,” he said. 

But how could I? War was practically at my doorstep. How could I not look? So I continued watching.  

Another war photographer whose room does not have as good a view came over to share mine. Everywhere we looked there were explosions.  

We could see clearly against the dark sky a blue plane moving very slowly over the area and fire from Iraqi anti-aircraft missiles trying to shoot it down.  

It passed right over the hotel, and I learnt that the aircraft was a drone – a pilotless spy plane that took photos. 

The next morning, we journalists gathered at the lobby of Palestine Hotel opposite the Sheraton and compared notes on what we had seen. 

Although we thought the two hotels were the safest places in Baghdad, believing that neither the United States nor Iraq would hit an area full of journalists, volunteer doctors and human shields, it turned out we were wrong. 

A day before US troops marched in, a US tank opened fire at a room on the 15th floor of Palestine Hotel. 

This was a little unnerving for me since only two minutes earlier, I had been standing on the rooftop of that hotel watching F-18s bombing the other side of the river. 

I had just gotten down the stairs from the roof and entered the lift when it jerked violently from the impact of the strike. 

When I got to the lobby, there was anger, sorrow and apprehension as journalists realised the hotel had been hit. I watched as they rushed injured colleagues to hospital, two of whom later died. 

Needless to say, I kicked myself for my stupidity and vowed not to make rooftop visits for a while. 

When US troops were just a day away from taking control of the city, my driver Adnan Najib borrowed his sister's hijab (black dress and head-dress) and I wore it in some areas so that I could go around looking less conspicuous. 

When I wanted to put on my sunglasses, Adnan stopped me, saying it would be a dead giveaway that I was foreign. Apparently, the hijab and sunglasses just don’t go together. 

As Saddam Hussein's government collapsed, giving way to utter disorder and “ali baba” (local term for looting), journalists became nervous, fearing they would be the next target of looters.  

So, it was with a sense of relief that they welcomed US troops in, because it meant they could carry on with their work “protected.” 

However, the need for caution remained. 

The hardest part of the war for me has been the visits to hospitals.  

I found I could be detached when I came across limbs, other body parts and charred or bloodied bodies lying about or in shallow graves outside the hospitals. 

But it was hard for me to see living people – men, women, children, babies – in hospital with no arms or legs, shell fragments in their abdomens or mouths, or burns from missile attacks.  

Although I have been strong throughout, there have been one or two moments when I found myself crying with them. 

I then tell myself: “It’s okay. Journalists too are only human.” – JMTM  

Other stories from Baghdad by Shahanaaz Habib

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