Iraqi Civilian Disabled by War Struggles to Find Aid

The nearly five years of warfare in Iraq have left tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians wounded.

Aid agencies are struggling to help fill the void in Iraq's overwhelmed and dilapidated medical system, but many war-disabled Iraqis fall through the cracks.

Some have ended up on Baghdad's streets scratching out a living as beggars and street vendors.

Majid Hameed, a wiry 36-year-old, used to work as a blacksmith and night guard at the Mishen complex in east Baghdad, a giant commercial center that sold tires, auto parts and metalwork.

That was before a massive car bomb in late March 2004 turned the industrial complex into an inferno.

Hameed remembers the place burning, power lines crackling down before he lost consciousness.

"My whole body was burned from the explosion, and I was poisoned especially in my two hands," Hameed says.

Poor Treatment at Hospitals

By "poisoned" Hameed means he developed gangrene in one of the several Baghdad hospitals where he was shuffled for treatment. Eventually, the staff at al-Nu'man Hospital told him the only option was to amputate both hands and forearms just above the elbow.

"Before, I was a complete human being, but now I feel like I'm half human. Others have to do most everything for me. It's like a child's situation. They feed me, wash me and change my clothes," he says.

Now without hands or a job, Hameed provides for his wife and five young sons by selling trinkets on Baghdad's still precarious streets. These days he hawks little plastic spray bottles of car air freshener. Using string, he hangs the trinkets from what is left of his mangled arms, which he covers with torn socks.

"This job now, I feel I'm humiliated in the street all the time, dealing with some bad people and people who just don't care. Some people encourage you, others do not. Some just dismiss me saying, 'Let God help you.' Such things drive me crazy. I'm not a beggar," Hameed says.

He keeps a pack of cigarettes and a lighter in a pocket of his blue and orange tracksuit, but he needs someone to put a cigarette in his mouth, light it and help him smoke. He admits he gets agitated easily these days. He is still deeply shaken by the bombing and frustrated at the loss of his hands.

"When people don't do things the way I want, I get nervous and angry, and then I struggle to do things with my mouth or legs," he says.

No Program for Disabled

Iraq's health ministry says it has no program for follow-up care for civilians disabled in the war. The ministry and the Iraqi Red Crescent say they aren't yet able to fully track the number of civilians who've been wounded.

Hameed's failed efforts to get medical care, prosthetic arms and compensation highlight the tragedy of Iraq and the deep dysfunction of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.

At Iraq's ministries, Hameed says, desk clerks kept putting him off, blaming security and money woes. Then, a private relief agency he went to for help said it needed not only medical reports but also police reports about the bombing. Officers at his local police station told him to get lost. He then tried to get help from his neighborhood council.

"They laughed at me, saying, 'We don't give letters to disabled people confirming they were hit by a car bomb. We know nothing about it. This is not our business,' " Hameed recalls.

Later, an official at Baghdad's Italian hospital offered to try to get Hameed fitted for prosthetics. But soon afterward, two Italian aid workers were kidnapped, and the Italian help fell through as violence increased, Hameed says.

"Frankly, I laughed. They told me to keep contacting them, and I did for four months. But then, there were car bombs and other attacks all around that medical complex area where they are, and then the sectarian problems broke out. So, I felt hopeless and quit contacting them," he says.

Then, a Turkish embassy employee gave him his business card and said he might be able to take him to Ankara for treatment. But the Turkish official told Hameed he would have to pay hotel, transportation and food costs for himself and a family escort — costs totaling at least $2,000. "How would I get $2,000?" Hameed asks.

"I felt helpless — not about God's mercy — but helpless with my situation, with the government and the Americans. They don't keep their promises. Until now, we are colonized by someone stronger than us. They made us a government of empty chairs only," he says of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government. "

Hameed heads back out onto Baghdad's streets to hawk trinkets at a traffic stop. "I don't feel completely broken," he says with sour optimism. "I'm helping my family to live."

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