A Doctor's Life in 'Baghdad Hospital'

Mortars, car bombs, human misery — they're the stuff of daily routine for doctors in Iraq. A doctor with a hand-held camera covers a scene most Americans know little about in a new documentary on HBO, Baghdad Hospital: Inside the Red Zone.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

So there's been a lot of talk about the decrease in violence in Iraq post-surge, but mortars, car bombs, shootings - that's all still a daily reality in Iraq. And one hospital in Baghdad, Al-Yarmouk, has seen really the worst of the war over the past four, almost five years now.

After the U.S. invasion, doctors at Al-Yarmouk had to carry weapons to protect themselves and their patients. And it's this hospital that's the subject of a film debuting tomorrow night on HBO.

And as filmmaker Omer Salih Mahdi shows, the danger begins even outside the hospitals walls.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Baghdad Hospital: Inside the Red Zone")

(Soundbite of ambulance siren)

Dr. OMER SALIH MAHDI (Filmmaker): The bomb had gone off in a Shiite neighborhood, targeting Shiite civilians. Two of the ambulance crew are Sunni. Sticking their necks out like this every day, I couldn't help but wonder at their bravery.

This area is controlled by the Shiite militia, the al-Mahdi Army. The locals think the government is unable to protect them, and they don't trust the police.

Straight away, I was told to stay in the ambulance.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking in foreign language)

STEWART: That's a scene from the film, "Baghdad Hospital: Inside the Red Zone." It's been too dangerous for any American crew to get inside that hospital. But an Iraqi doctor, armed with a handheld camera, managed to do it. He did use an actor to do the narration of the film so he could stay anonymous himself.

Doctor-turned-filmmaker Omer Salih Mahdi stopped by our studio to tell us about it.

STEWART: You had to get permission from the highest authorities. This was a very difficult thing for you to do. The doctors themselves didn't want to be filmed. What was that process like, and how did you convince them?

Dr. MAHDI: Well, that's right. I mean, it was really a very difficult process, at first, to get the permission. It took me, like, four months, going -knocking the doors over the authorities and the ministry of health. I've been refused several times, and they've turned me down several times.

But I was determined to make this film and I insisted on following up and insisted to get the permissions, until finally I asked to meet the minister himself, to talk to him.

STEWART: The minister of health.

Dr. MAHDI: The minister of health. The hospital itself is full with different kind of security forces. There were the hospital protection services, there were the commandos forces, the Iraqi interior ministry forces, and also the police. And everybody were against the filming. And they've told met that these - we are - they don't have any - they don't have to obey these permissions because it's not the authority that's controlling them.

STEWART: There are so many gripping images in this film. The emergency room is filled with civilians, all the time, who are suffering from horrible, horrible injuries.

Describe, if you will, though, the conditions that these doctors are working in, besides just the numbers of people who were in there. What are the conditions like, trying to be a doctor in this environment?

Dr. MAHDI: It's very difficult because doctors are human first, and they try to do their best to save those people. But with the increased number of casualties they were facing or they are facing every day, and also the horrible injuries. I mean, before the war, we'd hardly seen a major trauma. Only when there's a huge motor traffic accident or some criminal shooting, which was very rare. But now, on daily basis, we see tens of people who really cut into parts.

And some - while I was working in the emergency room or while I was filming, really, there were doctors who were, after they finish dealing with the a lot in the emergency room, I've seen them, like, stepping aside. Some people - you could see that their eyes are - they wanted to cry, but they hold themselves -especially when you've seen those innocent civilians, the children, the women who are hopeless, and they just got in the line of fire. And they are unable to save their lives.

STEWART: There is one scene that was, for me particularly, difficult to watch. This is a scene of a young boy who's been wounded by shrapnel from a bomb that apparently killed his father. And he's on the - on an operating table. There's no anesthetic. And he's being treated very rudimentarily. Let's listen to a little clip of that scene.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Baghdad Hospital: Inside the Red Zone")

HASSAN: (Speaking in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in foreign language)

Dr. MAHDI: Hassan is six years old. He was playing the street when a bomb went off, killing his father and brother. And he was hit by shrapnel.

The E.R. doctors had to make holes of his side to drain off blood from his lungs. This is a crude and inefficient method, but we don't have enough X-ray film and there's no ultrasound.

HASSAN: (Speaking in foreign language)

STEWART: First of all, why don't they have the supplies that they need?

Dr. MAHDI: Really, that's because I think of the bureaucratic methods that the ministry of health following. I mean, we've heard of a lot of aid and supplies that are delivered to the Iraqi hospitals. But on the ground, there were really nothing. I mean, we've got some aid, but they are very few in number and they are not enough to cope with the increased casualties doctors are receiving in the hospitals.

Doctors really forget to follow the scientific methods and they are trying to deal with whatever they have just to save people life.

STEWART: You really had amazing access in this film. I mean, you are writing along with these crews as they're going out to the sites of car bombs and attacks. There is one scene in particular where a woman has been injured, and she and some other men who were involved in the attack are in the ambulance, and she is angry. She is really upset. I mean, she's wounded, but she has a message.

Dr. MAHDI: Well, I was in surprise, really, because they are - all the people I know really is saying that Saddam's day were really better than the days now. That's true regarding the security, because - I mean, I'm not saying Saddam days were really good days, but now we can't think of any, like, we - our worries about our safety and our security. It's very easy for you to be killed in the streets. People leave their houses. They don't know if they are going to come back or if they will see their children again.

So for, people are really - they get fed up. And for those people in particular, it's like they were hiding, hoping that nothing will happen to them. And at that moment, that's it. It's happened. The bad thing happened. So they just - when they've seen the camera, they were really very eager to speak. And you've seen in the film, this man was - is telling me, please, broadcast this. I want you to show this to the world. Let them know what we are facing here.

So this woman, I think, she reached to the desperate point. That's it. Is that what you told us after Saddam? We don't want this. We want Saddam back. Even if we were starving during Saddam's day, but at least the brothers were not killing his brothers.

STEWART: How did this affect you, making this movie?

Dr. MAHDI: Actually, it's really - I mean, it's really made me reconsider my self, my career as being a doctor there. To be a doctor there is really a very painful job, that you are watching people die and nobody outside world know about that. But I'm glad that I got this chance to get this shift in my career, from being a doctor to a journalist, because I hope this will really make a big impact at - on the people here that they might help Iraqis, the civilians Iraqi in introducing some change to the life there.

STEWART: That was Omer Sahli Mahdi. He's on a Fulbright fellowship to study journalism at Ball State University in Indiana. He says he does miss some parts about being a doctor in medicine. But for the meantime, he's sticking to journalism. His film, "Baghdad Hospital: Inside the Red Zone" debuts tomorrow night on HBO.

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