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• Photo Essay: David visits with Iraqi children
ANBAR, Iraq — It’s the last day of my Inside Anbar blog. The temperature has risen to 110 degrees in the shade and 130 degrees in the sun. We’re once again riding with the men of 2nd Battalion 5th Marines. Today’s mission was suggested by their commanding officer, Lt Col Craig Kozeniesky. He’s seen numerous children with conflict-related injuries who just can’t get the help they need and wants to introduce us to them.
We’re taken first to meet Abdul and Mustafa. Abdul is just five-years-old and was playing outside when an insurgent sniper shot him through the neck. His uncle shows us where the bullet went in one side and out the other. Abdul has a nasty tracheotomy that just won’t heal properly. He hardly speaks, and survives on a liquid diet. Sometimes food leaks out the hole in his neck. All he needs is a surgeon with the skills to close up the wound. It probably won’t happen if he stays here in Ramadi.
Abdul is extremely shy, but he’s fascinated by the camera as we interview him. Later, he plays with a toy elephant. His uncle tells me he likes to watch "Tom & Jerry" cartoons on TV. An ordinary little boy caught up in extraordinary circumstances needing help that isn’t available.
Mustafa is a few years older, and was shot in the face by a U.S. soldier during a firefight with insurgents. Doctors recovered the bullet from an M16 rifle inside his skull. During his initial surgery, Mustafa lost his eye and part of his nose caved in. Right now there’s a metal cage inside his head, stopping his face from collapsing — but as Mustafa grows, the cage needs to be expanded too. His family already spent $26,000 dollars on surgery in Syria but it was all the money they have, and now there’s no more.
Once we get Mustafa to start talking he won’t stop. First he sings into the microphone. Then he tells me about the police checkpoint he’s set up in front of his home so he can watch for strangers in his street. Mustafa tells me he mostly just searches old people. When I was growing up, kids made forts or camps. Here in Iraq, the kids are building police checkpoints to watch for suicide bombers. That just seems profoundly sad to me.
Next, Lt Col Kozeniesky takes us to meet 12-year-old Ayad. A couple of years ago she was caught in a roadside bomb blast while driving with her family in Ramadi. Ayad’s mother and two sisters died in the attack, and she was left terribly maimed.
Ayad’s home is full of young children in brightly colored clothes. There’s a lot of noise and activity. The arrival of U.S. Marines and a camera crew excites the kids. Amongst all the chaos, Ayad sits quietly in a plastic garden chair, adapted by her family with wheels so she can be pushed around. Ayad’s got a very pretty face with big brown eyes, and seems a little embarrassed by all the fuss. U.S. Navy Doctor Jaime Vega tells me about Ayad’s injuries. Her feet are twisted outwards, and scarred from her initial surgeries. Her heels need to be reconstructed and she has terrible burns on her calves and legs. The burns, we’re told, cover the rest of her body too. Ayad says she’s in constant pain and Doc Vega agrees she’ll probably suffer from chronic pain for the rest of her life. Only Ayad’s face seems to have escaped undamaged, and that’s a miracle. When she looks into the camera, hearts melt.
Ramadi’s too badly off for medical facilities. There’s a large general hospital in the north of the city. In the west, a specialist hospital for women and children. One problem is that thousands of doctors fled Iraq in recent years for better jobs in the West and other Arab countries. It’s a medical brain-drain. Another problem is that Ramadi is a Sunni city. The health ministry in Baghdad is run by Shiites and a complaint we hear time and again is that resources, medicines and equipment never arrive.
After five hours in the heat with Lt. Col. Kozeniesky and Doc. Vega, the temperature has taken its toll on me. I don’t cope well in the blistering sun. No matter how much I cover up, and how much I drink, it’s just not enough. Back at base, a trip to the medical centre confirms I’m severely dehydrated. The doctor asks, “Are you usually so pale?” to which I reply, “Well, I’m Scottish, so there’s a good chance you’re looking at my normal skin color.” The medics give me four one-litre bags of fluid and some medication for nausea.
Showing little regard for my feelings, cameraman Pete and producer Martin seemed to enjoy taking photographs of me with an IV stuck in my arm. I was a heat casualty three years ago during my first ever embed in Sadr City. Since then, I really have tried to keep on top of hydration when I’m out with the military, but the temperatures overwhelmed me this week.
The nausea medication makes me act like I’m drunk, staggering around and unable to form complete sentences. A few hours later — plus a good sleep — and I’m back on my feet again.
It takes a while to get acclimatized to the searing heat of an Iraqi summer. Soldiers and Marines have to cope with this all the time wearing their bullet-proof vests and helmets, carrying weapons and ammunition. Unlike them, I’ve got the luxury of leaving here and going home every six weeks or so.
David Mac Dougall is a freelance reporter for FOX News in Baghdad.