Life and Death on Vietnam Street

From Dahr’s weblog

I haven’t slept very well the last couple of nights, as the growing anxiety of car bombs has me waking at the smallest noises outside my window nowadays.

Dave was typing on his computer as I walk past him to the kitchen to make some coffee at 8:15 this morning and a huge explosion rumbles down the street near Tharir Square.

“Morning, man,” I said. “Morning,” he replied as we both stare at the huge, brown mushroom cloud that rises above the buildings out our window.

Our daily car bomb viciously welcomed another day of this wretched occupation of Iraq.

At least 13 people died in this one, according to wire reports. The targets were the passengers in several of the typical SUVs used by CPA contractors. Five of the foreigners are killed, in what was apparently a carefully planned and orchestrated attack.

In the aftermath of blood and chaos, reports said, the front of a nearby building was left sheared and scores of Iraqis began dancing on and around the charred vehicles while holding pieces of twisted metal blown from the vehicles over their heads and chanting, “Down, down America!” and “America is the enemy of God!” Then the vehicles were set abaze.

As the crowd grew in size and furor, U.S. tanks with soldiers in riot gear arrived to seal the area. Soldiers kept their guns aimed at the angry crowd as investigators attempted to collect evidence from the scene of devastation.

I went back to Sadr City to interview doctors at Chuader Hospital. Dr. Qasim al-Nuwesri, the head manager there, said his hospital often receives upwards of 125 dead and wounded Iraqis each time fighting between the Mehdi Army and U.S. soldiers breaks out in the Shi’ite slum, which the U.S. military refers to as the “Black Zone” of Baghdad.

“Whenever large groups like this are brought in, we know it is because of the Americans,” he said in a rare slip of sentiment. For during the rest of the interview he was very careful not to reveal too much about the misdeeds of the occupation forces in his area. He, like so many other doctors and hospital administrators I’ve interviewed over the last 2 months, won’t answer some of my more pointed questions regarding civilian casualties or troops raiding the hospital to interrogate or arrest wounded fighters.

He was quick to point out the struggles his hospital is facing under the occupation. “We are short of every medicine,” he said while insisting that this rarely occurred before the invasion. “It is forbidden, but sometimes we have to reuse IVs, even the needles. We have no choice.”

This hospital treats an average of 3,000 patients each day.

Another major problem that he and other doctors spoke of was their horrendous water problem.

“Of course we have typhoid, cholera, kidney stones … but we now even have the very rare Hepatitis Type-E … and it has become common in our area.”

As a quick Google search reveals:

“HEV … is transmitted by the fecal-oral route. Transmission is associated primarily with ingestion of feces-contaminated drinking water. The highest rates of symptomatic disease (jaundice) have been in young to middle-aged adults … particularly among pregnant women in the second or third trimester. Fetal loss is common. Case-fatality rates as high as 15%–25% have been reported among pregnant women. Perinatal transmission of HEV has also been reported. Signs and symptoms, if they occur, include fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, abdominal pain, and fever. Hepatitis E has a low (0.5%–4.0%) case-fatality rate in the general population.

“The best prevention of infection is to avoid potentially contaminated water and food.”

Dr. Qasim al-Nuwesri said a German NGO called APN was bringing in water trucks for a while, but they still only had 15% of the necessary clean water supply to operate hygienically.

Upstairs in a room full of seven younger doctors, we found them even more forthcoming with information.

“The most important thing is no clean water,” said Dr. Ali, a 25 year-old resident physician, while the other six doctors in the room nodded in agreement. “This problem is affecting us so much,” Ali added.

He also said that U.S. soldiers have periodically stormed his hospital looking for wounded resistance fighters. “They come here asking for patients, and are very rough because they shout, cuss, and aim their guns at people,” he said. “We have patients run away when the Americans come, and then we hear that they die at home because they didn’t get their treatment.” According to Dr. Ali, U.S. soldiers also entered the hospital in order to remove posters of Moqtada Al-Sadr from the walls.

Dr. Ali described more of the horrendous conditions the hospital has faced under the occupation like the ongoing power, water, medicine and equipment shortages. Again the other doctors nodded in agreement. “I think the cause of these worse conditions is the Americans,” he said firmly at the end of our interview.

Driving out of the sewage-filled, garbage-strewn streets of Sadr City we passed a wall with “Vietnam Street” spray-painted on it. Just underneath this was written, “We will make your graves in this place.”

Shortly after taking this picture from the car window, we were pulled over by two men in a beat up car who had waved us down. One of them, holding his hand on a pistol beneath his dishdasha, asked what we were doing, who we are, and why we were taking pictures. After our interpreter does a brilliant job of explaining to him that we were writing about the situation of the hospital and are Canadian, the self-proclaimed member of the Mehdi Army begged our pardon. “Excuse us, sir, but we are defending our city. We are at war with the Americans here, and we are responsible for patrolling this area.”

When we told him we photographed the “Vietnam Street” graffiti, he said, “We call it this because we’ve killed so many Americans on this street.”

He’d wanted to take us to a sheikh to question/interrogate us, but thanks to Hamid being quick on his feet, we avoided the detention and promptly left Sadr City.

Later today, after visiting the Baghdad Morgue (that’s another story for another time), Hamid and I picked up some food and were driving back to the hotel.

We passed yet another group of Humvees and soldiers near a fuel station. As drove by them in the blazing heat, Hamid shook his head. He was pro-invasion, but now does his best to cope while watching what is left of his beloved country disintegrate with each passing day. I tell him I think Iraqis are amazing for all they have dealt with, and now this, how do they go on?

“Each day we know it is up to God to decide if we will be spared from a bomb. We Iraqis have no choice but to take it day by day,” he calmly explained.

“I understand,” I say while nodding.

Tonight I’ll remember his words when I lie down to sleep, knowing they will bring me deeper sleep for a change.

Author: Dahr Jamail

Dahr Jamail has reported from inside Iraq and is the author of Beyond the Green Zone.