BAGHDAD/GENEVA—Intense shelling and aerial assaults in northern and central Iraq have struck hospitals and other medical facilities, depriving civilians of much-needed medical care, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said today.
The latest attack occurred on July 20, when the hospital in the town of Shirqat, between Mosul and Tikrit, was bombed. MSF, which supports some of the hospitals that have been struck, called upon all parties to the conflict to respect health facilities, to allow medical staff to continue their work, and to preserve full access to health services.
“We are receiving accounts from medical staff that more and more hospitals have been hit by bombs in recent weeks,” says Fabio Forgione, MSF head of mission in Iraq. “Medical staff have fled, fearing attacks on the health facilities where they are working. We are extremely concerned that significant numbers of people are now deprived of the medical assistance they need.”
“I was in the emergency ward, operating on a patient, when the hospital was hit,” said an Iraqi surgeon, speaking by phone from the conflict zone. “Suddenly all hell broke loose. The power went out, people started running in all directions, not knowing whether to escape or to seek shelter in the hospital. Everybody was terrified.”
Since it was initially attacked, the hospital in Shirqat has been directly hit several more times and all patients have been evacuated. A number of patients have been transferred to the closest hospital still operating, in the town of Hawija. Other health services have been moved to three different locations in town. “Working conditions are desperate and many items are in short supply, from antibiotics to anesthetics,” said the Iraqi surgeon.
Following the shelling of MSF’s clinic in Tikrit on June 13, which aimed to provide medical care to some 40,000 displaced people in the region, MSF called upon all factions to respect medical staff and facilities. Two weeks later, on June 27, the main hospital in Tikrit was hit by an airstrike.
One Iraqi surgeon was taking a break after performing a Caesarean section when he heard a large explosion.
“The walls were shaking, and doors and windows were shattered,” he said. “Then we saw thick smoke billowing from the emergency room, and we rushed down to what was left of the ground floor.”
The entrance and the emergency room of Tikrit Hospital were destroyed by a direct hit from a bomb dropped by a helicopter.
“One person lay dead and we transferred all the others to Saladin Hospital,” he said. “That day, most of the medical staff fled.” The woman he had been operating on survived, and she and her newborn baby were taken to safety by family members.
Tikrit Hospital, which previously treated some 5,000 people per month, was repeatedly targeted, as was the city’s second hospital.
“It’s a disaster,” said the surgeon, speaking from Tikrit. “Hospitals are empty. People now have to drive through war-torn areas to reach the closest hospitals, more than 200 kilometers [about 125 miles] away in Erbil and Kirkuk.”
The hospital in Hawija, where MSF has been working since 2011, is one of a few in the region left untouched by airstrikes. However, a member of MSF’s medical team in Hawija reported bombs have exploded twice in areas near the hospital over the past week.
“We fear that the hospital may be hit by shelling, as has already happened elsewhere,” he said. “We are making contingency plans to transfer our services to other locations.”
“This situation is transforming the war-torn areas into a wasteland in terms of medical care, at a time when health care is desperately needed,” said Forgione.
MSF supports three referral hospitals in the towns of Sinjar, Hawija, and Heet with 24-hour emergency services and outpatient consultations. MSF medical teams also operate mobile clinics in the areas of Mosul and Kirkuk, with a focus on mother and child health care and chronic diseases. MSF has worked continuously in various locations in Iraq since 2006 and currently employs more than 300 staff.