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Baghdad's Forgotten Souls Living in Fear and Filth

Iraq's only psychiatric hospital, stormed by looters, provides a miserable refuge.

May 01, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Swathed in a dirty gray blanket, the sores on her feet thick with flies, the young woman lay motionless on the concrete floor of the women's ward in the only psychiatric hospital in Iraq.

Sometimes she cried -- a low hoarse sound that seemed to come from the back of her throat -- and the flies would rise in a cloud, only to settle again.

Her companions in the sun-burnt yard paid no attention. They were watching for the arrival of a rare vat of clean drinking water, clasping their cups close to their bodies as if afraid someone would steal them.

Conditions were never good at this hospital in an impoverished corner of Baghdad, but with the war they deteriorated sharply, said hospital staff, patients and workers for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Al Rashid Psychiatric Hospital had about 1,400 patients before the war. But after looters broke the gates, most of the patients fled and are believed to be wandering Baghdad's streets, staff members said. The patients in the rambling compound now number barely 300.

Looters rampaged through the hospital a few days after Baghdad fell, stripping it of every stick of furniture, its toilets, light fixtures, medicines and, most precious, the motor for its water-treatment plant, leaving patients thirsty and dirty.

Worst of all, the looters sexually assaulted three female patients -- an act doubly brutal in a Muslim society in which intimate relations with anyone other than a spouse is a crime punishable by death and brings lasting shame to the victim's family.

Sudaw Audaw, 27, a gentle-faced nurse, tried to articulate the feelings of guilt and hopelessness that besiege her and many of the female staff members.

"I wanted to run away, but I didn't know where to go," said Audaw, who stayed at the hospital through the war and the looting even though she had not been paid in weeks.

"We lost control. We couldn't protect the patients. One young lady was a virgin, and now, in the rape, she has lost everything," said Audaw, who along with some patients witnessed at least one of the rapes.

The environment is one of fear, unimaginable filth and psychological chaos because the thieves took most of the hospital's stores of antipsychotic medications and sedatives. Patients rave helplessly for hours, if not days.

The International Committee of the Red Cross had worked with the hospital for years, helping the institution set up a small water-treatment plant so that patients would have adequate clean water. An ICRC psychiatrist even came to work there. He left before the war started.

Repairing the damage will take months and cannot be done without adequate funds, ICRC engineers said.

The Invisible Harm

The psychological damage will take far longer.

"The looting was disastrous in this hospital," Nada Doumani, a spokeswoman for the ICRC in Baghdad, said last weekend. "Some of the patients were physically attacked, and many fled."

In the men's ward, some of the most disturbed patients are terrified when they see anyone from outside the hospital. Wearing soiled, sour-smelling blue- and green-striped flannel nightshirts that hang to their knees, their lower legs bare and smeared with dirt or excrement, some of the men tremble as hospital staff, engineers and reporters come in and out.

An older man with legs as thin as sticks and a gray stubble on his face closed his eyes and began to chant -- perhaps in an effort to ward off inner demons: "Our blood, our soul, our souls for Saddam. Our blood, our soul, our souls for Saddam."

He looked uncomprehendingly when a staff member tried to explain that Saddam Hussein is gone.

Another man, Mohammed Hamid Hussein, leaned against a wall in a soiled tweed jacket -- unnecessary in the hot spring sun but a rare personal possession that the looters had left behind. Furtively, he tucked a packet of pills under his clothes.

When he realized that no one would take them from him, he kissed them and held them out for a reporter to see.

It appeared that at least some of the patients were political dissidents. Mohammed Abdul Sattar, an assistant manager at the hospital, said that about 50 of the 650 male patients before the war had been sent by the courts "because some of them had attacked the government, and so the judges have them brought here to evaluate whether they are a mental patient."

"I am here because of Saddam," said Karim Cobra, who described himself as a poet. "I'm not from the Baath Party. I had some ideas of my own."

The party, dominated by Hussein, was key to the leader's hold on power, and Cobra, whose family supported the regime, was afraid that his independent ideas would get them in trouble. "I came here to get some rest," Cobra said.

Slowly it emerged that he was imprisoned for his ideas, tortured with electrical prods and then was sent here.

Could he leave now?

Yes, with the permission of the doctor and the director, he said, but after 12 years here, the outside world seemed filled with risks. Where would he live?

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