BAGHDAD: Mercy Malaysia always keeps its cars in reverse in the garage and the vehicles have almost full tanks at the end of each day in case things get ugly and the team has to make a quick exit.
These are not idle precautions as a number of humanitarian and aid organisations such as International Committee of the Red Cross, Care and the United Nations have been hit by bombs, grenades and rockets by so-called Iraqi resistance groups.
These bigger and more visible organisations have responded to the threats by pulling their international staff out of Iraq.
But Mercy Malaysia, a relatively new player in the field, has not received any such warnings so it intends to stay put.
Mercy Malaysia made its foray into Iraq in April shortly after the fall of Baghdad. They got quite a scare when some Iraqis mistakenly shot at the two cars they were travelling in, wounding Datuk Dr Baba Deni and Datuk Dr Jemilah Mahmood.
A Syrian driver and an Iraqi accompanying them to the hospitals died in the incident.
But even that didn’t frighten Mercy Malaysia off.
Within a month, Dr Taufiq Jemain, who was part of that first team, was back in Jordan waiting for the right time to go back into Iraq to help the needy hospitals.
He had to wait until their security officer Major Sam arrived and on June 6, together with Ayman - a Jordanian interpreter, the three-man team went into Iraq to check out the situation on the ground and deliver RM300,000 worth of medical supplies.
Of this, some 80% went to Chwader Hospital located in a poor area here while the other 20% was given to Ar Rutbah primary health centre, which is out in the desert.
“But that 20% was enough only for a month,” said Dr Taufiq in an interview in a two-storey house, which serves as the office and living quarters for Mercy Malaysia here.
Dr Taufiq said that during the June 6 to June 11 trip, Mercy Malaysia made assessments, contacts with other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in Iraq and established a base.
It identified Ibn Al Quff hospital, the one and only spinal injury unit in Iraq as one of the places that really needed help.
The hospital was badly looted, drugs were stolen by the Ali Babas and the condition was “pathetic.”
“There were rats the size of cats in the hospital,” said Dr Taufiq.
And after the six-day trip, the team came out and did some more planning based on their assessment and readings on the ground, and went back into Iraq – this time for a much longer period.
They were there from June 26 until Aug 3 and this time, they found the difference very stark.
“In June, we could go around in normal taxis. Life was actually not that bad. There were not a lot of bombs. And there were about five attacks a day on Americans here.
“In August, this had gone up to 13 to 14 attacks in Baghdad alone. Now it is up to 30. There were also lots of bombs and IEDs (improvised explosive devices),” said Dr Taufiq.
He said the bombs, too, has become more sophisticated. They were placed in rubber tyres, dead animals on the roads, debris, rubbish, tin cans, branches and potholes – in short just anything. And detonated by remote control.
Hospitals are not the safe havens anymore as one expects them to be.
At one of the hospitals in town, Dr Taufiq said, a woman was caught carrying a baby strapped with explosives.
“She confessed to being paid US$5,000 (RM19,000) to do this,” he said.
As babies are being kidnapped often enough here, the one she was carrying might not have been her own. A number of ambulances have been stolen as well.
All these dangers made it crucial for Mercy Malaysia to get a reliable driver trained to be aware of these dangers and skilled enough to know how to avoid them.
Then it was down to work.
At the Al Quff Hospital, Mercy Malaysia decided to overhaul the whole sewage system.
“The hospital was built in the 1980s and designed to last 10 years. At the time of its glory, it received patients from even Kuwait.
”But now, 20 years later, the sandwich panels boards served as good nutrition for rats!” said Dr Taufiq.
As for the sewage system, he said it was in such a sad state.
It was blocked, and leaks dampened toilet floors – attracting huge rats.
Mercy Malaysia wasn’t the only one at Al Quff. Care was also doing work there and had built a new Ward – Ward Five, replaced all the sinks and built a new cafeteria.
Mercy Malaysia had allocated US$160,000 (RM608,000) for its part to rehabilitate Al Quff Hospital but had to wait for the approvals to come through for the project from the International Medical Aid Committee (IMAC) which co-ordinates all medical projects in Iraq.
When the approval finally came, Mercy Malaysia called for tenders and picked an experienced and trustworthy contractor for the job.
They were about to start work in the middle of August when tragedy struck. The United Nations headquarters which was only 30m away from Al Quff Hospital was bombed.
The hospital, too, took a severe beating.
“It shook sideways and all the ceilings came down,” said Dr Taufiq.
And the new unit that Care had only just built which was due to open the following week was completely destroyed. This forced a reassessment and modification of plans.
Mercy Malaysia, Care, and the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) did their own structural assessments on the hospital and they found the foundation still intact.
But because of the damage to the hospital, more work had to be done and this involved even more funds. Care and Mercy Malaysia decided to work together on the project and estimated a cost of US$500,000 (RM1.9mil) to rebuild the hospital.
They will also have to buy new beds and mattresses and time is not on their side.
Patients from Al Quff were transferred to other hospitals and were dying at the alarming rate of three to five each month because of improper specialised care.
The delay, too, was costly in other ways.
There was a shortage of cement in Iraq and as factories here remained closed, supplies were brought in from Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Quality was inferior and prices a lot higher.
Dr Taufiq said cement prices had gone up by 700% to 1000% since before the war and brick prices were up by 50%.
So the longer the wait, the higher the price.
Work on Mercy Malaysia’s project at Al Quff finally started two weeks ago and it is estimated to take about six months.
Another project Mercy Malaysia is pumping money into is the Al Mansoor paediatric teaching hospital.
The hospital was not looted, but 10 years of neglect gave it leaky roofs and a sewage system with leaks down to the food preparation area that “gave patients diarrhoea for free.”
Mercy Malaysia overhauled the air cooling system, fixed the hydrotherapy pool, replaced the stolen lights and repaired part of the leaking roofs.
But they didn’t get to repair the whole roof.
When work on the roof was 30% complete, one of the hospital engineers insisted on bribes and started giving trouble because Mercy Malaysia refused to pay.
There are many other needs to rehabilitate the hospitals in Iraq.
Dr Taufiq said hospitals had zero stock of certain essential drugs like vaccines for children, for measles, drugs for cancer and so on.
“For hospitals in any country to function, you need reserves,” he said.
Doctors here are in dire need of training programmes.
The 12-year-long sanctions which ended only after the fall of Baghdad denied doctors access to medical books and journals so they are not up to date on medical advances.
“It is difficult to implement projects here because of the security situation but the need is there,” Dr Taufiq said.
The United Nations has five phases of security and the highest is phase five which requires evacuation of international staff.
After the bombing of the UN building in August and the second bombing in September, the UN officially went into phase five and has remained at that phase for the moment.
The ICRC too has left for the moment.
Their building was bombed by a car suicide bomber and now only Iraqi guards are manning the place.
Care too has pulled out its international staff after its office was hit by three rockets.
And yet 60 or so NGOs still continue to operate in Iraq including Mercy Malaysia and they are not thinking of leaving.
“There are concerns of course. We want to see how things are going.
“The main risk for the NGOs is being at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Dr Taufiq said.
To avoid being at the wrong place at the wrong time, Dr Taufiq does not leave the office unless there is a need.
“The main danger is on the road when you go from point A to point B,” he said in reference to the numerous roadside bombs in the capital.
When he does go out, Dr Taufiq is never without his phone and walkie-talkie. And he remains undeterred to continue Mercy Malaysia's work in Iraq.
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