The Digital Journalist
November 2003

by Paula Bronstein

I'm in Baghdad, the well-armed, lawless capitol city where the security situation has been deteriorating at a steady pace. I've been here for six and a half weeks. There is now a large number of frustrated, rather angry Iraqis who are sick and tired of the guerrilla war, especially with so many recent casualties.

An unconscious Iraqi woman is wheeled into the emergency room at Al- Yarmouk hospital October 20,2003 in Baghdad by her son. She died moments later of heart failure.

Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
The daily routine here for those of us covering random car bombs or missile attacks has become very simple. Everyone is acutely aware of that sound, listening for the next boom, and then rushing to a balcony or roof to look for smoke and charging off to the scene. It's a primitive form of ambulance chasing indeed but with few tall buildings in the Baghdad skyline it works, more or less.

At night in the Al Hamra Hotel, most journalists casually speak about mortar attacks, because, over a beer or wine, we believe that it would be rather unlikely that we would be car bombed. However, last Friday 3/4 of the guests (including myself) evacuated after serious security threats forced us out. Now everyone is back again and we are happy campers for the time being.

Within this atmosphere of violence and occasional mayhem I decided it was time to do a story from the Iraqi side, putting a human face to it. I started a photo essay on the emergency room at the Al Yarmouk hospital, Baghdad's largest trauma facility.

Taher Hasan, 4, waits for treatment after being hit by a car in the emergency room at Al- Yarmouk hospital October 20, 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq. There were no blankets for the boy so his father had to run home to get one.

Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
On the first day, within ninety minutes I saw four people die. One car accident, two from multiple gunshot wounds and an elderly woman who was rushed in with heart failure but moments later died. The relatives of the old woman started freaking out, rolling on the floor screaming and crying until they were escorted out by the hospital security. I was too stunned to even lift up my camera because the screaming was so loud and the emotion was so raw that its possible they would have attacked me if I even tried. It's not unusual for the media to be targeted since there is a lack of trust towards us now, and many Iraqis think all westerners are American and therefore we are part of the problem. I looked for my translator but he had already left the room, sick from the sight of too much blood, and fainted in the hallway. I turned around and asked a doctor if this was a normal evening here. He calmly replied that it was busier than normal. That's when I started thinking, "Holy shit... this story is going to be a little intense."

So, what is normal here in the capitol city? Things have changed a lot post-Saddam. Under the oppressive regime there were a lot more rules and regulations that had to be followed, people were on a very short leash. There is an obvious epidemic of violence besides the car bomb attacks and the improvised explosive devices that end up killing Iraqis as much as they do the soldiers. People are emotional, they're acting out, and they have guns.

Over the next few visits I saw things that pulled at my heart. There was a 65-year-old woman who got hit over the head with a gun while robbers stole her purse and gold necklace at a bus stop. Her head was bleeding and she was in a lot of pain but said to me, "See what has happened to this country! They even attack an old woman." There were three school children who were heading home from school when they got hit by a car. Later that day a 17-year-old boy was walking down the street past two gunmen having a fight when he took a bullet at close range directly into his scull.

Fhadel Chyad waits for treatment for his head injury from a car accident in the emergency room at Al- Yarmouk hospital October 20, 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq.

Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
After a couple of visits to Al Yarmouk I got used to blood but not so used to the fact that this government hospital lacked so many basic things, almost seven months after the occupying force took over. There were no blankets unless the family members brought them in, just a plastic sheet that could be rinsed off. Medicine was in low supply and most of the wounded were carried in or thrown in wheel chairs since there was a shortage of ambulances and a lack of working telephone lines to even call one. Several times I found myself trying to get water for patients who were thirsty but there were no cups. The injured weren't washed unless their relatives did it.

The hospital kindly supplied me with my own security man armed with an AK-47 because, I was told, it would be a good idea just in case the emotional relatives went off on a rampage of anti-American feelings. One night I needed it. After a shoot-out, four Iraqi men came in barely alive, with gunshot wounds, and a fifth man was in serious condition. Moments later family members began to arrive and the place overflowed with emotion. As I started to document the scene some of the relatives told the security that if I didn't leave that they would kill me. One woman screamed at me that this was my entire fault even though my translator kept on saying that I was just a photographer from Canada. I left rather quickly not wanting to end up as a patient.

I finished the E.R story feeling I had witnessed something important and meaningful. I want to go back there a few more times before I leave, maybe because it's a slice of real life here, and as stressful as this place is, I want to experience as much as possible and comeback in one piece. So far so good.

© Paula Bronstein
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