A Doctor's Life in Baghdad

  • Share
  • Read Later

One Thursday morning in April 2003, Dr. Said Hakki woke up in his Tampa, Florida, home and drove to the hospital where he had worked for years to perform a routine prostate surgery. After scrubbing out, he drove to the airport, caught a flight to Washington, D.C and then another to Baghdad, the hometown he hadn't seen in 20 years. "It went back centuries — not decades," Dr. Hakki says of his first impressions. Now the president of the Iraqi Red Crescent Organization, the country's largest aid group, he bemoans the lack of humanitarian assistance in Iraq. "I used to treat patients from Iran, from Saudi Arabia and from Kuwait — but now we send our patients [there]. It's ironic. It's a lot worse than when I left."

When Dr. Hakki returned to Iraq in 2003, the major hurdles facing him and other aid workers were those of the organizational and infrastructure kind, not bombings and beheadings. He recalls many late nights driving home safely along Haifa Street, a central Baghdad artery that later became a safe haven for insurgents and snipers. Back when it was safer, Dr. Hakki had to drive down the wrong side of the street because U.S. Marines were busy using the other side for nighttime soccer matches with neighborhood kids. For goalposts, says Dr. Hakki, they used their helmets and body armor. Nowadays, no soldier would caught on the street without helmet or armor.

Today, Dr. Hakki takes alternate routes to work, coming and going at different times to avoid being an easy target for assassination. As a precautionary measure he doesn't tell his colleagues when he will be arriving or leaving, and he resides in the heavily fortified Green Zone, which he never leaves after dark. "They are afraid — the security is fragile, still," Dr. Hakki says of expatriate humanitarian aid workers, with whom he pleads to return to Baghdad during his trips out of the country. "They say — they are very polite in their reply — they say we don't have the green light yet. The U.N. said that a lot of pressure has been put on them. They don't want to take the responsibility — they fear for their lives, which is true." Since the beginning of the conflict, 11 Iraqi Red Crescent employees have been kidnapped, six killed and eight wounded, six of those seriously, says Dr. Hakki.

The danger is both real and perceived, and the view of Iraq by any veteran aid worker is colored by the brutal 2004 kidnapping and beheading of Margaret Hassan, the Irish-born CARE international aid worker who had been living in Iraq since 1972.

Mohammed Alomari, a director for the Southfield, Michigan-based organization LIFE for Relief and Development says his organization sent its last expatriate staff member home from Iraq in 2005; a local program director was killed in 2006. "Others have been threatened. Others have quit and fled the country," says Alomari. Finding qualified staff to replace those who have fled, he says, is a major challenge.

"We're all constrained by shortage of transportation assets," says Chris Crowley, USAID's mission director. "That's one of the key issues that we as a donor face — not having that overall comfort knowing how effective the resources are." On a recent trip Crowley made with colleagues from the U.N., he went to an area of Adhamiyah, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood in northern Baghdad, full of internally displaced people, or IDPs in humanitarian lingo. For some of his colleagues who had been in the country a year it was one of their very first such visits. Through the thick glass he could see the different living arrangements of the IDPs, some living in middle-class housing, others living in ramshackle buildings made of cement, wood or U.N. tents. But, says Crowley, "I wasn't able to get out of the armored car."