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Iraq: Assisting people displaced from Hawija

14 Feb 2017

Many of the displaced people come from Hawija, a district southwest of Kirkuk that has been under the control of armed groups for more than two years. Médecins Sans Frontières teams are providing healthcare these displaced people as well as supporting emergency care in two hospitals. Mariko Miller is a Canadian emergency nurse and shares her account of assisting people arriving in Kirkuk.

“Hawija is a place suffocated by suffering. Many make the choice to finally leave Hawija and embark on a journey that some don’t survive. Those caught trying to flee can be executed, and those who make it out of the town have to travel 7km at night through a desert scattered with landmines and improvised explosive devices, where snipers sometimes hit their marks. It is a calculated risk they have taken: that to survive, they might die. There is a young woman who lost her entire family yesterday when they stepped on a landmine in the dark, and her grief is so palpable, so horrifying. 

"It is a calculated risk they have taken: that to survive, they might die. There is a young woman who lost her entire family yesterday when they stepped on a landmine in the dark, and her grief is so palpable, so horrifying"

There is an older man who sits alone, short of breath and with a loud audible wheeze. I am giving him some Ventolin so he can breathe, but instead of breathing better, he starts to cry, and tears keep falling out of his eyes. His son is in Hawija. This is all he needs to say. Sometimes it is the hardest thing, to hear these stories and to maintain a sense of professional composure, when I feel the tears just behind my eyelids, paralyzed but wanting to drop like the rain. I have no idea what to say other than, “Inshallah, [God willing] your son will arrive safely”. He looks at me with glassy eyes and repeats, “inshallah”, and looks up to the sky. Two little kids lost their mother in another landmine explosion yesterday en route. The air I breathe in is blanketed by suffering, and it is shedding layer after complicated layer all over the land.

During this last week, several children have come through with blast injuries and our doctor has removed shrapnel and metal from little limbs and the team has safely transferred them to the emergency hospital in Kirkuk, which Médecins Sans Frontières is supporting. We see only the ones who make it, the ones who have survived the perilous journey and reached the entry points beyond the frontline, and we know there are many who have been left behind. At a different entry point, a young man collapses on arrival as he exits the truck. He is unresponsive and pale, but alive. He is carried to our clinic and I see tears spill out of the edges of his eyes. He lies paralyzed on my floor, weeping, until finally he is able to sit up. He tells me how his parents were recently killed and his brother is in Hawija. His wife is pregnant with their first child and he feels overwhelmed by uncertainty. We sit on the clinic floor and his pregnant wife joins us and they cry together. He thinks I have saved his life and, with clasped hands, he tells me he will pray for me every night. His courage overwhelms me.

We are building our project from the ground up, and we are preparing for the days to come. We have started training staff in the main emergency hospitals and we are gaining access at entry points to provide a response for war-wounded and emergency arrivals. Our medical teams are growing quickly to build capacity, and the solidarity of the team makes it easy. The intersection of humanitarianism and medicine here reminds us of Médecins Sans Frontières’ identity, and the need for our presence is obvious. The gratitude from our patients is remarkably humbling and, as heavy as the air is in pockets here, we are all exactly where we need to be.”