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Last Updated: Monday, 14 April, 2003, 14:19 GMT 15:19 UK
Caring for the victims of war

By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online in Basra

Doctors in the southern Iraqi city of Basra have warned of a humanitarian crisis because of the lack of basic supplies in some of the city's hospitals.

BBC News Online visited Basra's teaching hospital to find out how staff were coping with the aftermath of conflict.

Man in hospital bed
A man is treated in a Basra hospital from bombing injuries

Basra Teaching Hospital was one of Iraq's finest medical centres, before the looters stripped it of everything, right down to the clocks and chairs in the waiting rooms.

But this ransacking was the result of a previous war, not the current conflict. The looters were invading Iranian soldiers, not Iraqi civilians taking advantage of the chaos created by the fall of Saddam's regime in Basra.

The thieves who have brought misery to other parts of Basra were perhaps dissuaded by the male hospital staff posted by the main gate and at the doors to each ward. It is more likely the looters opted for a target further from the city's main British Army camp.

A week after the city fell to British forces, one of the few complaints about the US-led war comes from the team manning the hospital's high-tech MRI scanner. The fighting has delayed a training trip to the machine's makers in the Netherlands.

Instead the medics are lifting a young, groaning man from a rusty trolley and placing him inside their shiny, three-year-old scanner. They want to see how much damage a shard of shrapnel has done to his skull and its contents.

This man is among the few patients being treated for such wounds.

Fewer causalities

The civilian casualties that doctors feared would flood the hospital as the fighting approached did not materialise. "The dead far outnumbered the injured," says one doctor. "The American bombs were so heavy that when they land on a house, no one survives."

Administrators say they are not yet running out of medicines and expect to have their stocks replenished soon. And though the hospital's beds and trolleys may be decrepit, much of the hospital's surgical equipment and machinery, such as the MRI, are newly bought via the UN's oil-for-food programme - which delivered humanitarian aid to Iraq during the tough economic sanctions.

The hospital is one of the few buildings in Basra to have electricity.

Doctors have also stopped dipping buckets into the oily Shatt al-Arab river nearby. Fresh water supplies, last week non-existent, are now being tankered in, though somewhat sporadically.

However, even recent interruptions in the supplies of this most basic of necessities do not faze chief surgeon Professor Abdul Benyan. "The water was cut off in the war of 1991. We can manage, we are used to these things. In fact, this year is not as bad as then."

Haifa Muhmood also hopes that the wake of this war will not be a heartbreaking as the last.

In 1991, her son died of gastroenteritis. Today, another son, 18-month-old Shakir, lies feverish on a hospital bed.

A man grabs my arm and brings me to the bed of a patient. He thinks you are a doctor from Britain, someone eventually explains in English. He thinks you have come here to help.

A chest infection the boy caught at the start of the war developed into pneumonia as his family sheltered in their home from the surrounding fighting.

"I am a GP and knew that the sooner I brought him here, the better his condition could be managed," says Mrs Muhmood, who herself attended Basra Training Hospital. "We came out of our home when the shooting stopped, but even then we drove only on the back roads to get here."

Mrs Muhmood treated the son who died in 1991 herself. This time she wants her medical teacher, Professor Benyan, to care for Shakir.

"I am his mother, I cannot also be his doctor. I am a good doctor, but I don't trust myself with my own son. I bring him to the best doctor I know. Here they have specialists and equipment."

On the wards, the relatives of other patients are not so certain of the local care they are receiving. Amid the smell of incense 'burned by some to perhaps mask the hospitals other odours' a man grabs my arm and brings me to the bed of a patient only barely conscious.

He points at the prone male figure, whose bandaged limbs protrude from under a small, rough blanket. The ailing man's relative waits expectantly.

"He thinks you are a doctor from Britain," someone eventually explains in English. "He thinks you have come here to help."

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