Barbara Debusschere, De Morgen
(Belgium), 26 November 2005
translated 07 December 2005
Iraqi surgeon Salam Ismael (29) has piles of pictures and interviews with survivors and witnesses that show
that many Iraqi civilians and doctors were victims of much more than 'collateral damage’, as was the case
with the US attacks on Fallujah. "Doctors and patients were killed, ambulances were attacked. They used
illegal weapons such as napalm, and even those who surrendered and dared to move, were shot."
"I want to return to Iraq soon. In Fallujah, I’m going to help set up
a water purification plant, and in Hadeetha, I want to help build a new hospital", Ismael says. It sounds
like urgent. A member of the Doctors for Iraq Society, Ismael is thin and has those typical long, fine
surgeon’s fingers. But in Iraq, Ismael has already survived the worst situations. His organisation is
gathering evidence of human rights violations under occupation. He was invited to Brussels by the Belgian NGO
'Medical Aid for the Third World’, in order to draw attention to the war crimes being committed in Iraq.
Right before he would show his images to demonstrate that indeed
illegal chemical weapons had been used by the US during the second siege of Fallujah, Dr. Ismael finds the
time to tell his story. He doesn’t know where to start. But then comes an avalanche of stories, images, and
examples to underscore his point. "The breaches of medical neutrality must stop. Shooting at doctors and
ambulances is a crime."
Were you yourself in those ambulances?
"Yes. After my studies in the Baghdad Medical School, I wanted to
specialise in orthopaedic surgery, but everything changed with the US invasion. Instead of pursuing my
studies, I offered my services as a volunteer doctor, and that is what I’m still doing today.
"It often happened that ambulances were shot at by US snipers, like
in Fallujah. During the first siege, one day we went to see an injured family. The Americans occupied the
street. We had to proceed just six meters in order to get to those people, but every time we tried to cross
the street, it rained bullets on the wall across. One of my colleagues finally dared to go. He counted to
three and, in his white coat, ran toward the wounded man, with the bullets flying. He took the man, folded
cardboard around his body and attached a rope to it. He threw us the rope, counted again to three, and we
pulled the patient toward us. Again, bullets drove into the wall."
How did you work during the first siege of Fallujah, in April
"The Americans had cut the city’s access to the hospital, so we had
to set up a field hospital. Those were terrible days. We had to amputate legs with nothing but heavily
diluted local anaesthetics. We had to suture wounds with common thread and needles. During and right after
the fourth night, the night of the cluster bombs, we were no longer doctors, but gatherers of limbs. We
looked out for heads that could fit with other body parts. One man only had a collection of limbs as the last
remembrance of his wife and children. After two weeks a ceasefire was installed. But it was no real
ceasefire, as the snipers came into action. People were annihilated just like that, in the streets,
Before the second siege, in November 2004, everyone was called upon
to leave the city. But even then, many civilians died.
"They always do that, they ask women and children to leave a city
before the attack. But that is sheer nonsense, as there are no provisions for them whatsoever. Many people
prefer to take shelter in their homes. But during the second attack, illegal weapons such as napalm were
used, killing people in their homes as well. And yet, whoever obeyed, would also be killed. (long silence)
"It is one of those catastrophes of which we have chilling
testimonies. A family of eight obeyed and left the city, toward the assembly point the Americans had
indicated. They walked one behind the other, with a white flag, hoping to quietly save their lives. But
suddenly, the Americans started to shoot at the families at the assembly point. A man who survived witnessed
his wife, his children and his father being shot, one after the other. He was injured himself, but after a
couple of hours he found the strength to wave for help. After which they shoot at him once more."
What did you do during that second attack?
"I tried to help wherever I could. But during the second siege we
were not allowed to enter the city. Only later on we could. But yet, we tried to get to the people in need.
From inside the ambulance, we threw water containers and bread at them. Which immediately got riddled with
bullets. And that is only the most innocent example of the serious breaches of medical neutrality committed
by mainly the Americans and their allies. The Geneva Conventions state that the warring parties must respect
and protect medical personnel, and give them access to the patients. On their part, the doctors must be
neutral and treat any injured person. Well, we are accomplishing that task. I have treated Americans,
Iraqi’s, even insurgents.
"But many times, the soldiers attacked doctors and their patients, or
blocked and destroyed medical relief. Doctors were arrested while they were operating. 'You are treating
insurgents’, the soldiers yelled. The patients were dying while the soldiers were beating up the doctors."
Did hospitals get bombed?
"Yes. Snipers took the main hospital of Hadeetha, in the West, during
the US military operation Matador, on May 7. They knew that surgical operations were on-going. Doctors were
arrested, they blew the rooms to pieces, and even tanks entered the hospital. The entire medical stock was
destroyed, the warehouse burned for nine hours. I was working there, and we immediately started to
reconstruct the medical quarter, but on May 29, we were attacked again."
Was there no serious suspicion that insurgents were hiding there?
"No, because the soldiers always search the hospitals, they search
every corner. And yet, it is illegal to sabotage operations and medical assistance, even if we would have
been treating an insurgent. Medical services in war zones are ridiculously senseless if you don’t have any
protection, if your hospital is bombed time and again, if your doctors are hit, if your ambulances are
Do only the Americans commit such violations?
"No. Also the Iraqi army and police, who have a lot of power. Some
time ago, they hit beat a doctor because he would not have treated a soldier well enough. As colleagues
started to protest, they, too, were maltreated. But in all the evidence we have been able to gather, and
which we intend to publish in a report, it is mainly the Americans who violate medical neutrality. Which is
logical, for it is their invasion."
Can you always remain neutral yourselves?
"I am training young medical doctors, and I do that from the
perspective of medical neutrality. But as a doctor, that is not always easy. You are seeing people that have
been shot to pieces, and that makes you angry and defiant. I am not affiliated to any political party, but as
a medical doctor, I prefer the Iraq from before the invasion. At that time, at least we had the resources
needed to do our job. Now there is nothing, and even the most fundamental human rights are being violated.
Every day the Americans are creating more enemies by staying on, and by turning cities like Fallujah into one
huge prison, where people can only enter or leave through checkpoints. The waiting lines are long, and an
iris scan is required from everybody."
How is the situation now?
"Concerning Fallujah, I don’t understand how they are able to
persevere that long. The city is a prison. There is hardly any reconstruction, many people are homeless and
are sick. In Baghdad there are now some medical facilities, but in the far-flung areas there are none.
Everything has been destroyed. Apart from the fact that we have received some new materials, the situation is
getting worse in the health centres. There’s an enormous brain drain. Doctors who have been targeted are
fleeing the country. All aid agencies have left Iraq as well. I launched an appeal at the World Health
Organisation. It is too bad that we have to beg like that, but we can no longer manage the situation.
"The biggest problem right now is the corruption. Donor money is not
reaching us, the entire administration is corrupt. There are no more taxes now, and the mafia is running all
kinds of trade, of medicines and food. Spoiled food is entering the country from Jordan and is being sold
freely in Iraq. There is no more supervision. Which renders even more people sick."
Do you believe that the tension between Sunni and Shia may lead to
a civil war once the US withdraws?
"No, that is ridiculous. Only the mass media and the Americans are
saying this. Look, we have lived together for centuries. Sunni and Shia get married, have children, work
together. It is the politicians who are creating tension, in order to win seats. In real life there is
cooperation among common people. They do not experience the political ethnicity that is being fanned. And
yes, sometimes things get out of hand. But it is not the Americans who are going to solve that. No, they just
want to control everything, and they want to stay on. They are already building military bases for after the
retreat of their troops. But that way, every day they are creating more enemies, they are reaping more
"White phosphorous? Last
year already we knew that the US killed civilians with it."
One of the accusations
that Salam Ismael’s organisations, the Doctors for Iraq Society, wants to prove, is that the US has used
illegal weapons against civilians during the second siege of Fallujah. Ismael is hardly surprised by the
revelations on the Italian TV. "We have known all this for one year already. We have been able to gather
pictures from the South of the city, from the hardest hit areas. We have been able to analyse 77 corpses.
Even from afar, you could already notice that chemical incendiary weapons had been used against civilians.
Our claim is that white phosphorous was used in combination with napalm. If you mix napalm, which causes 4th
degree burns, with white phosphorous or magnesium, you create a burning effect of 3500°C. If that product
gets in touch with the body, it will burn away everything. That is exactly what we saw.
"Because of the war
against Iran, Iraqi doctors know the effects those instances can have on the human body very well. You will
indeed see clothes that are intact, but exposed body parts that are completely burned, that have
disappeared. Napalm sticks to the body, making it work even better. Moreover, it destroys the oxygen. We
also have images of people having died in their beds, at home, without any bullet wounds. Men, women,
children. They have a bluish aspect, or there is blood dripping from their mouths. Indications of the use of
instances such as napalm or white phosphorous.
"There have been other
indications, too. After the attack, aid workers were barred from entering the city for three days. Entire
areas had been levelled by bulldozers and covered with sand. Why? Look at our pictures, and you’ll know