Hell on Wheels

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Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP / Getty

An Iraqi soldier secures an area in Baghdad, Iraq as an ambulance passes. .

Ambulance driver Hussein Mohammed (not his real name) never knows which van he'll get when he arrives for his shift at the dispatch center in downtown Baghdad. The ten vehicles on the lot are a mix of imports, including Nissans, Toyotas and Mercedes. If he's lucky, Mohammed will get a Peugeot. "It's the easiest to handle," says the shy, skinny young man who speaks in a raspy whisper. "And it's the fastest."

The wail of sirens follows almost every explosion in Baghdad, marking the progress of men like Mohammed to the scene of the latest calamity. He's been an ambulance driver for the past five years in a city where no job is safe, but where driving an ambulance is easily one of the riskiest professions. He long ago lost count of the number of times he's been fired on. Once, on Palestine Street, the bullets actually shattered the windows of his ambulance as he sped down the road. He's in it for the money, earning about $150 a month as the only breadwinner in a family of 12. Iraq's unemployment rates are estimated to run as high as 70 percent, and for many, the only reliable work is based around the country's biggest growth industry: violence.

Asked about his worst day at work, and Mohammed quietly recalls an afternoon in August of 2005. A procession of Shi'ite pilgrims were massed on the Aimma Bridge in northern Baghdad, making their way to a golden-domed shrine for holiday celebrations. Suddenly the crowd grew panicky — someone had said there was a suicide bomber among them. A moment later, the line on the bridge erupted into a stampede. Barriers broke, and people plunged into the Tigris River below. Other walls on the bridge held, trapping some under a suffocating crush of people. Mohammed arrived on the scene in time to see scores of dead bodies — almost 1,000 people were killed in the incident, and as many were injured. He quickly began ferrying victims from the bridge to three different hospitals, where the injured filled hallways and emergency rooms.

Most of the 60 people Mohammed transported that day were soaking wet, but usually those riding in the back of his ambulance are burned and bleeding from wounds inflicted by car bombs. On Thanksgiving Day, he was among the responders who rushed to Sadr City, where a series of blasts killed roughly 200 people. "It was horrible," Mohammed says, describing a scene of broken bodies strewn over scorched rubble. "There were hundreds of people turned into pieces."

Among the victims Mohammed tried to help that day was a family of six, all of whom had been injured in the attack. He loaded them into his ambulance, along with at least one body and several body fragments he gathered up as well. He hoped, of course, he could save each of them — they were, after all, his neighbors; Mohammed and his family live in Sadr City. But at the end of the day five of the family were dead.

"At least I was able to save one," Mohammed says.

Despite all the drama and danger, Mohamed says he never thinks about going back to being a cabbie, the job he held before becoming an ambulance driver. As long as the violence keeps up, this work is steadier. Ask Mohammed what his best day on the job has been, and he answers without hesitation: "Payday."