Athbah(IRAQ): Every time a patient is stretchered into the Athbah field hospital south of Mosul, doctor Sultan prays it isn’t his sister or brother.
Most of the medical staff is from the war-torn Iraqi city and each one of the victims they treat could be a relative or a neighbour.
“It’s very painful for us… Many people, many children, need amputations or will remain paralysed,” he says from the small field hospital set up in Athbah, just a few miles south of Mosul.
Sultan, who chose not divulge his full name, fled Mosul when the Islamic State still controlled the city, which they made the de facto Iraqi capital of their now crumbling “caliphate”.
But his siblings are trapped inside, in neighbourhoods of Mosul’s west bank still held by the jihadists despite almost six months of fighting by the security forces to retake the city.
“I have no news,” he said. “Daesh (IS) uses civilians as human shields and many buildings have been levelled by air strikes. They might be lying under the rubble and I don’t know about it.”
For now, the 43-year-old is treating a man in his forties with facial injuries.
“He’s stable,” he says, after feeling the pulse in the patient’s bloodied wrist.
In the same room, Faruq Abdulkader is treating a teenager who is writhing in pain but was relatively lucky: “The bullet went straight through the arm without touching the bone,” the doctor said, relieved.
These doctors used to work in Mosul but fled the tyrannic rule of the jihadists. Now that regular forces are wresting back Iraq’s second city street by street, they are back to help.
The Athbah field hospital opened on March 24 with support from the World Health Organization and the Iraqi health authorities.
Abdulkader said most of the injuries they treated were caused by explosions but the hardest thing was often to witness the suffering of their own neighbours.
“Some of them are our neighbours, coming from the same area where I was living in Mosul, and I’m so sad for them,” he said.
The fighting to retake what is now the last major IS stronghold in Iraq is taking its toll on civilians.
According to the United Nations, at least 307 of them were killed between February 17 and March 22, a period which only covers the first weeks of the offensive on west Mosul but not the entire operation that started in mid-October last year.
The 29-year-old Abdulkader says he feels lucky to be in a position to support the humanitarian effort because two of his fellow doctors were killed — “one by the jihadists and the other in an air strike.”
A patient is rushed in to the trauma unit, the third in half an hour. His face is entirely covered in bandages, bones visible all over his body.
The Mosul battle has lasted nearly six months and supplies have dwindled sharply as Iraqi forces secured the city’s east bank and sealed their siege on the jihadists’ last redoubts on the west side.
Basic goods have been unavailable for months and the little food that is left is either too expensive or hoarded by the jihadists.
“Nearly all our patients suffer from malnutrition,” says Taryn Anderson, head nurse at the Athbah clinic. “We can’t call it a famine but it’s very alarming, especially for the children.”
After examining the very weak patient who was just wheeled in, the doctors decide against a transfusion — the precious blood they do have will be saved for other patients with a real chance of survival.
Ali Saad Abdulkhaled, a 26-year-old nurse who used to treat people in his home in east Mosul during the fighting there, said the number of wounded civilians was increasing sharply.
“The west side is more densely populated, it’s the Old City,” he said. “The number of victims is huge. They are our neighbours, our families.”