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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 May, 2003, 08:44 GMT 09:44 UK
My war: The aid worker

Dr Mary McLoughlin was a hostage under Saddam Hussein in 1990, but that did not put her off coming back to Iraq to help locals after the latest war. She is now working with the Irish relief agency Goal in Nasiriya.

The last time I'd been in Iraq, it was as a hostage of Saddam Hussein. I was working as a nurse in a hospital in Baghdad in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait and they wouldn't let westerners leave.

I was here for five months and they only let us out on the eve of the allied attack. It was a terrible ordeal but it didn't put me off coming back to Iraq.

But to be honest I wasn't mentally prepared for this war. I'd always believed America would pull back at the last minute; that it was in their long-term interests to keep Saddam because he wouldn't let Islam get a foothold in the government.

The medical supplies depot in Nasiriya was destroyed, the hospitals are running out fast and the locals are coming down with gastroenteritis
Dr Mary McLoughlin

That all changed on the day Bush gave Saddam 48 hours to get out of Iraq. Then I knew it was going to happen and I knew that I'd be going to Iraq.

I was in Dublin at the time but I'd always said that I'd be part of Goal's emergency team here.

I left home for Kuwait on the Saturday after the war started. We didn't know how soon we would be in Iraq - would the army crumble or put up a strong fight?

As it was, we were in Kuwait for about three weeks and that was spent talking to the UN and the military's civil affairs office and other NGOs, all the time trying to prepare for going in.

Pulling at reins

We'd been assigned Nasiriya and the outlying districts by the UN, which are home to about two million people.

Women carrying food and water supplies
Aid reaches outlying villages near Nasiriya

It got very frustrating towards the end. We had to wait for the area to be declared 'permissive' rather than 'hostile' before we could move in and it kept being put back. We were pulling at the reins to go.

Eventually, we drove into Iraq on 15 April, with a military escort taking us up to Nasiriya. I wasn't fearful - I'd been shot at almost every day for the six months I'd worked in Bosnia, so I was prepared for anything.

My job is primarily a health advisor but also a general advisor, seeing what the needs are and how we can help in the area. I won't be involved with the actual delivery of the help.

So I've been to the hospitals to see their needs. The doctors say they need power, sewage disposal, clean water, drugs, medical equipment, security and salaries - many of these people have not been paid in two months.

I think Iraq has a future - there is a wealth of oil, good agricultural land, a relatively small population and well educated and trained local people

The central medical supplies depot in Nasiriya was destroyed in the war. The clinics and hospitals are running out fast and meanwhile, the locals are coming down with gastroenteritis and other water-bourn illnesses.

We've started tankering clean water to clinics, drug supplies are coming in from abroad and we're starting to repair key water pipes and remove blocked sewage.

What we don't have to worry about are IDPs - internally displaced people - people who have lost their homes. They are the worst of all in any humanitarian situation and we've dealt with them in Angola, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Kosovo, Rwanda.

Harrowing work

They are highly traumatised and we can only meet a tiny number of their needs. Because there is no refugee crisis here we can pitch ourselves at a higher level.

Serbs fleeing Kosovo fearing reprisals by ethnic Albanians
On the move in Kosovo - thankfully there's no refugee crisis in Iraq

But that's not to belittle the problem here. People will die from the sanitation here. I've been doing relief work for 13 years and I've never become immune to the suffering of people.

I think I've become more sensitised. It is mentally and physically harrowing work and after some years it becomes hard to respond to.

Having said that I do think Iraq has a future. There is a wealth of oil, good agricultural land, a relatively small population and well educated and trained local people.

The workers here can meet the technical demands we have in the west, but they have almost no supply of goods and cash to help.

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