A Doctor Is Haunted by Those He Couldn’t Save
Dr. Ahmed Ghanim’s nightmarish week began with a phone call in the operating room of a makeshift medical center in downtown Fallouja.
On the line was the manager of the city’s General Hospital. Iraqi national guardsmen and U.S. Marines, the manager said, had entered the hospital, handcuffed the doctors and were forcing the patients out to the parking lot.
The guardsmen “stole the mobile phones, the hospital safe where the money is kept and damaged the ambulances and cars,” said Ghanim, an orthopedic surgeon who normally works at the General Hospital. “The Americans were more sympathetic with the hospital staff and ... untied the doctors and allowed them to go outside with the patients.”
But the worst was yet to come. In the coming days, Ghanim would narrowly escape a bombing, then run through his city’s battle-torn streets. He would walk hungry and scared for miles, carrying with him memories of those he could not save.
“What happened in Fallouja in April was a walk in the park compared to this time,” Ghanim said, referring to the spring siege of the city by Marines, an offensive that was called off after five days amid reports of heavy civilian casualties.
The latest fight for Fallouja began Nov. 7. The hospital, the city’s main medical facility, was seized that night by U.S. and Iraqi troops. Commanders said it was taken over to ensure that there was a medical treatment facility available to civilians and to make sure that insurgents could not exaggerate casualties.
As fighting has raged over the last week, few civilian accounts of the battle have been available. There have been only scattered reports on casualties. But as combat eased Sunday, Ghanim and other survivors emerged and began to tell of the carnage.
“We were kicked out by the ING [Iraqi national guard]; even the Americans weren’t as harsh as them,” said Farhan Khalaf, 58, who had been at Fallouja General Hospital when it was seized. On Sunday, he was in Baghdad’s Numan Hospital, caring for his injured daughter who had been transferred to the capital for treatment. She was injured by U.S. shelling, Khalaf said.
“They were roughing up patients and tying up the doctors, hitting them in some instances,” he said. “They stole whatever valuables they could get their hands on, including money and cellphones. This is unacceptable. How could they do this against their own people?”
After the troops entered the facility, the manager told Ghanim that he had told a U.S. general the location of the downtown makeshift medical center. The general reportedly pledged that Ghanim’s center would not be bombed on two conditions: No one with a gun could be in the building, and no groups could gather near the doors.
“Of course that was impossible because people came in groups to bring in their injured family and friends,” Ghanim said.
Monday came and went. On Tuesday, the bombing came closer to the city center.
“I was doing amputations for many patients. But I am an orthopedic surgeon. If a patient came to me with an abdominal injury, I could do nothing,” he said, eyes cast down, close to tears. “We would bring the patient in and we would have to let him die.”
Electricity was cut off to the city. There was no water, no food, no fluids for the patients, Ghanim said. But the patients just kept coming.
“We were treating everyone. There were women, children, mujaheds. I don’t ask someone if they are a fighter before I treat them. I just take care of them,” he said.
Late Tuesday, a bomb struck one side of the makeshift medical center. Ghanim ran out.
A second bomb hit, crashing through the roof and destroying most of the facility. Ghanim believes it killed at least two of the young resident doctors working there and most of the patients.
“At that moment I wished to die,” he said. “It was a catastrophe.”
Afterward, he said, he half-ran, half-wandered through Fallouja, dodging explosions that seemed to be everywhere. He took shelter in an empty house and did not move.
“Time stopped. I don’t know how long I was there,” he said. “The tanks hit anything that moved.
“I saw the injured people on the street, covered in blood, staggering, screaming, shouting, ‘Help me! Help me!’ but we could not get out and help them because we would be killed.”
At one point, he saw a wounded cousin in the street. “I could not do anything for him, I could not move,” Ghanim said. “He died. There was no mercy.”
During a lull in the bombing, the doctor decided to try to leave Fallouja. As he made his way through the rubble-filled streets, some fighters, native Falloujans like him, recognized the surgeon. They showed him a way out. He walked with a companion -- an anesthetist -- along the Euphrates River heading north.
First they walked to Saglawiya, a nearby village, he said, then more than 12 miles to the next village. There, a car picked them up and drove them about three miles. They resumed walking, occasionally getting a lift.
It took them 36 hours, mostly on foot, to make it the more than 30 miles to Baghdad. They didn’t sleep, and ate only a few dates and a packet of biscuits.
“Wherever we were, we expected to be killed. There was no safe area at all,” said Ghanim, who arrived in Baghdad on Saturday. “There were helicopters, tanks and troops wandering through all these areas.”
On Sunday, as Ghanim recounted the week that was, he was clearly haunted by what might have been.
“I think if the Americans let us treat the injured, even in the streets,” he said, “we could have saved hundreds.”
Special correspondent Said Rifai contributed to this report.