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A shoulder to cry on in Baghdad

The US military says levels of violence in Iraq are at their lowest for four years, but what psychological effect has constant unrest had on ordinary Iraqis? Caroline Wyatt returns to Baghdad after a 10-year absence to find out.

An Iraqi woman walks past a poster of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2000
Saddam Hussein had posters and monuments of himself everywhere

The Baghdad I remembered was a sprawling city, a place of honking horns and barely-controlled anarchy on the roads.

Amid the narrow, uneven pavements of the gold market, I jostled for space with shoppers peering closely at the gold necklaces given to brides at their wedding.

As a Westerner, I felt safe. After all, the secret police were everywhere. My government minder was never more than two steps behind, sometimes so close he would trip over my microphone lead, apologising profusely.

There was no forgetting who was in charge in those days.

Every government building bore images of Saddam Hussein, in all his guises... holding the scales of justice at the courthouse, cockily brandishing a shotgun as an Austrian-style huntsman in lederhosen, or my personal favourite... the massive poster on the telecom building showing a grinning Saddam chatting on a bright, pink telephone.

This week I have been driving through Baghdad in the back of an armoured vehicle.

No government minder this time. Four British security advisers instead.

The traffic around us is as anarchic as ever, now jammed together as cars approach the frequent armed checkpoints and the old bustle starts to return.

If this was a city ruled by insidious, creeping fear before, the new nervousness is much more concrete, quite literally. There are big blast walls everywhere by the sides of the roads to contain the force of a suicide or roadside bomb.

Soothing the pain

A US soldier patrols near a concrete blast wall east of Baghdad
Also known as a Bremer wall, the blast walls in Iraq are 12ft high

The scars of the past five years of war and anarchy are visible everywhere. The blue summer sky now shines through the bombed carcass of the telecoms ministry, its poster long since ripped down.

But the mental scars are harder to see.

At Baghdad's only psychiatric hospital, the chief consultant, Dr Amir Husain, has devoted the last five years to treating patients traumatised by the violence.

In the busy waiting room, the paint is peeling from the walls as if scraped off by desperate fingertips.

An anxious woman in black puts her arm around her young son, and smiles a nervous greeting, before we disappear into Dr Husain's tiny consulting room.

He has a kind face and a soothing manner.

He nearly did not make it in to work today. An explosion near his home saw the streets sealed off by the army, so he abandoned his car and walked instead.

The day before, yet another colleague was killed.

'Sane response'

Dr Husain is one of just four psychiatrists. The other seven were killed, kidnapped, threatened or they fled abroad.

I have lost my colleagues, my friends, some of my family... but we are used to it now... our emotions have been frozen
Dr Amir Husain

"Before the last war, we faced many psychiatric problems because of the hardship of life under sanctions," he tells me. "After the invasion, everything changed. Some said life was better, some that it was much, much worse."

So his list of patients grew.

From mild anxiety, to grief and depression, schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder, it strikes me that his patients' symptoms were a sane response to the madness around them.

Dr Husain and his colleagues also seem a little anxious. They, too, suffer from insomnia, and a tendency to duck at loud noises.

"We are having our own psychological difficulties," he admits, with a tired smile. His eyes are bloodshot with lack of sleep.

"We are always racing against time, dealing with shortages and fighting with the ministry for drugs or equipment to help our patients."

At first, he is reluctant to talk about his own problems, but then he says: "I have lost my colleagues, my friends, some of my family... but we are used to it now. Our emotions have been frozen."

So why does HE not leave Iraq?

"I won't," he says. "We come to work here every day because we've given our patients a promise to help them and we have to continue. Things will get better."

He says a new doctor arrived today, a man who specialises in child psychiatry.

It is, Dr Husain believes, a small sign of hope.

Offering support

Six checkpoints later, behind the even thicker blast walls of the Green Zone, I talk to the softly spoken UN envoy to Iraq, a Swedish Italian with a sing-song voice, Staffan de Mistura.

He has taken on one of the UN's riskiest jobs, in part to prove that his friend and predecessor Sergio Viera di Mello did not die in vain when he was killed by an insurgent's bomb that shattered the UN compound.

"This is not a poor country. It's got $70bn in oil revenues this year," he points out. "As security improves, there is no reason why there should not be sanitation, medical care or electricity... quickly."

So what makes him work in one of the world's most dangerous places?

It is, he says, the Iraqis themselves.

"Have you seen the people in the streets just after a bomb attack?" he asks me.

"A few minutes afterwards you see them cleaning up, turning the page. For a moment, they cry, they show their anger, but then the Iraqis go and just get on with the job, as they have throughout their history.

"Now we need to give them the feeling that they are not alone."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 31 May, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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