Byproduct Of Iraq's Wars: A World-Class Surgeon

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Dr. Afan Hawrami i

Iraqi trauma surgeon Dr. Afan Hawrami treats a young patient at his clinic in Sulimaniya, in Iraq's northern Kurdish autonomous region. International charities have recruited Hawrami to work in places such as Cambodia and Afghanistan for his expertise at treating war wounds. Quil Lawrence/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Quil Lawrence/NPR
Dr. Afan Hawrami

Iraqi trauma surgeon Dr. Afan Hawrami treats a young patient at his clinic in Sulimaniya, in Iraq's northern Kurdish autonomous region. International charities have recruited Hawrami to work in places such as Cambodia and Afghanistan for his expertise at treating war wounds.

Quil Lawrence/NPR

Sulimaniya, in Iraq's northern Kurdish autonomous region, has prospered in relative peace since the U.S. invasion seven years ago. The hospital there still lacks many basics — patients in "traction" lay with plastic bags full of bricks tied to their feet and hanging off the end of aging cots.

But the curse of war that has ravaged Iraq for decades has also trained some crack trauma surgeons — not least among them is Dr. Afan Hawrami.

Since the 1980s, he has treated victims of land mines, gunshots and bombardment, even as each conflict drove him and his family from their homes. By the 1990s, his skills as an orthopedic surgeon prompted international charities to hire him for their hospitals in Afghanistan and Cambodia.

When Hawrami was born in 1962, ethnic Kurdish rebellions against Baghdad had already turned the mountains around his home village, Taweela, into a mine-riddled conflict zone.

"It was a big village before it was destroyed by the war," Hawrami says.

As he studied medicine at Mosul University in 1980, Iran and Iraq began an eight-year bloody stalemate of trench warfare.

At the same time, Saddam Hussein's scorched-earth campaign against the Kurds drove Hawrami's family to live in the town of Halabja. He finished medical school in 1985, just in time for war to ruin his second home. Iraqi troops razed several neighborhoods of Halabja to the ground to punish the citizens for rebellion.

At that point, Hawrami decided to dodge the draft.

"The war was something very stupid, and serving in the military at that time was more stupid," he said. "I didn't consider it a national service or helping my country. The war that time was something nonhumanitarian."

In 1987, Hawrami left Halabja, hoping to escape to Europe. He got as far as a refugee camp inside Iran, and then the war caught up with him.

Soon he was treating bullet and shrapnel wounds, and then victims of the chemical weapons attacks on Hawrami's former home in Halabja.

By the time he returned to Iraq in 1991, Hawrami was a battle-tested orthopedic surgeon. For most of the next 10 years he stayed in Iraq, as the Kurdish region slowly recovered from decades of neglect.

War affects everything in a country — education, medical services and "even the personality of the people," Hawrami says.

Rebuilding for Hawrami meant fixing arms and legs, some of them from wars long past.

One patient, Ayub Nuri, recalls grim prospects before he met the doctor.

"He did a surgery on my right knee that was hit by rocket shrapnel in 1983 ... I had a curved leg, 7 or 8 centimeters shorter than my left leg," Nuri says.

Other doctors had advised that his leg might become useless, but Hawrami performed an operation that left Nuri with only a mild limp. Nuri went on to work as a journalist and travel to Europe and the U.S. He says that doctors everywhere — including an American specialist in Virginia — had the same amazed reaction.

"He looked at my knee for 45 minutes and called a number of doctors on the phone," says Nuri. "Then he invited another surgeon into his room and said, 'Look at this kind of great work that has been done for this gentleman by a doctor somewhere in Iraq.' "

At the time, Hawrami was working with an Italian aid group called Emergency, and it soon asked him to work in other field hospitals. In 2001, the group sent him to Afghanistan, and he was there on Sept. 11. Before long, Hawrami was treating wounds from the American bombardment of Afghanistan.

When Hawrami returned to Iraq in 2002, he soon left on another foreign assignment to Phnom Penh, ignoring the rumors of an impending U.S. military action in his own country. He said he went to Cambodia not believing that the Americans would invade Iraq.

In Cambodia, Hawrami treated fresh land-mine wounds as well as correcting many old injuries. With news of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Hawrami traveled home as quickly as he could, through Vietnam and Iran.

Since he returned to Iraq in 2003, Hawrami has found himself treating overflow patients, mostly Arabs, victims of the car bombs in cities such as Mosul, Kirkuk and even Baghdad.

He doesn't concern himself with how his patients came to be injured. His job, he says, is to take care of their wounds.

Hawrami says he would still like to study abroad to brush up on modern medicine. But Iraqi Kurdistan will remain his home, he says.

And as he watches Iraq's stalemated election dispute drag into its third month, with growing acrimony on all sides, he somberly warns that this country may have more wars to come.

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