Doctor Takes Camera 'Inside the Red Zone' of War

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As a physician in Baghdad, Dr. Omer Salih Madhi decided to do what few people could: He brought a video camera into an emergency room. Madhi's graphic documentary, Baghdad Hospital: Inside the Red Zone, premieres Tuesday night on HBO. The doctor talks about making the film and the current conditions in Iraq.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

When the news in this country turns to Iraq, the discussion often focuses on if or when to withdraw and how fast and the reports about American soldiers dying in the conflict. But sometimes lost in the conversation are the Iraqi civilians caught in the conflict - caught between warring factions, caught in the grip of forces over which they feel they have no control.

Now, one filmmaker is showing a perspective on the war from a view few if any Americans ever see, that of Iraqi doctors fighting to save the lives of their countrymen caught in the country's seemingly unending violence.

Dr. Omer Salih Madhi went where an American film crew could not: inside a Baghdad emergency room. His new documentary premieres on HBO tonight. It's called "Baghdad Hospital: Inside the Red Zone." And Dr. Madhi joins us from NPR's New York bureau.

Now, welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Dr. OMER SALIH MADHI (Filmmaker, "Baghdad Hospital: Inside the Red Zone"): Thank you very much.

MARTIN: What inspired you to make this film?

Dr. MADHI: Well, because first of all, because I'm a doctor, and I worked in the emergency room in Baghdad for a long time. I've been there during the invasion in 2003 and afterward. And really, I experienced so much horrible scenes that I don't think anybody in the world would go through what me and my colleagues went through. And the problem is nobody know about what's going inside those hospitals.

So I always wanted to carry those people voices who are screaming for help to the outside world. And I grabbed this chance by being connected to journalists and also working as a journalist myself. And it was difficult on every level in Baghdad by filming, getting permission, or being in the hospital. But finally, I got this film, and it was really - I'm really glad that it'll be shown in the United States so that people here can have a closer look to how civilian people in Iraq are suffering every day.

MARTIN: I want to talk more about what you had to go through to get the film done in just a minute. But I want to start by talking about the conditions in the hospital that you're bringing to light. And here's a short clip.

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

Unidentified Man: What I'm saying is Alil Mhoud(ph) is well known for these incidents. In fact, more than once, gunshots have been fired inside. We have evidence of that. Gunshots inside the ER, can you believe it?

MARTIN: And obviously, that's the voice of a translator speaking over that of a very dedicated surgeon at the hospital who's trying to keep working against all odds.

So it's hard for people to describe. I mean, Americans who've never had to deal with situations like that. But what are some of the chronic issues? Is it that the - is the hospital kind of a target?

Dr. MADHI: Doctors really are a target. The doctors are really under threat in Iraq and also nobody is really protecting them from everybody. The militia following the doctors, they're trying to monitor them closely, controlling who are they treating, and the insurgents also following the doctors. They need doctors to treat their wounded people. And if doctors refuse to do that, he will be executed immediately.

MARTIN: You also pointed out that many of the doctors who worked at the hospital did not wish to be filmed, did not wish their faces to be shown. And in fact, you, at one point, did not reveal your own identity. Why?

Dr. MADHI: I didn't want to reveal my identity because my family was living in Iraq and I didn't want it - didn't want to appear that I'm connected to the Western media because my fear on my family, not really on my life. It's kind of another difficulty added to the journalists who are working in Iraq - are people are scared to be filmed, scared to be seen talking to journalists or giving a certain opinion. They are scared, even from the government itself and the militia that's controlling the security forces that belong to government. So many times, the Interior Ministry forces invaded the hospital and they threaten the doctors, they beat the doctors.

MARTIN: Why, though. Why? Because they don't want people being treated who are of different backgrounds, or why?

Dr. MADHI: I've experienced this once when I was working in my emergency room. They had - the Interior Ministry forces entered the hospital and they have a wounded person. He had really very superficial wounds and the emergency room crew were busy with casualties. And they claimed that nobody take care of them so suddenly, they started to fire their guns in the emergency room, and they drag(ph) the doctors, and they told them that they should give all the care and immediately for their colleague.

It's not only the security forces, but everybody thinks that they have the priority to get the treatment, and really there is no control in the emergency room. Doctors there are alone and they have to deal with all these things. They have to deal with the angry people, with the angry security forces. And besides that, they have to save lives with limited resources they have. So it's really difficult thing to be a doctor in Iraq.

MARTIN: One of the things that I think was very difficult to watch was doctors having to operate with few supplies. In fact, there's a terrible scene where there's a six-year-old boy who's been wounded by shrapnel, and there's no anesthesia left.

Dr. MADHI: This really what's going on every day in Iraq that we treated the people with very limited resources we have. For this scene and a specific, the emergency room, they didn't have - like a child gauge chest(ph) tube, but they can't leave the child bleed in his chest till he dies so they use the adult-size chest tube. And also there's no anesthesia, I mean, we - I sutured so many patients in the emergency room, like hundreds of them without any local anesthesia because simply we don't have it.

MARTIN: Why not, though? I think the Americans are under the impression that there are resources going to Iraq. And I think that given that it's an oil-rich country and given that there are American and British forces there, who, many people believe should be offering some level of security, why are there still so many problems getting basic supplies?

Dr. MADHI: I've heard a lot about the supplies and the aid that's provided to the Iraq Ministry of Health, and actually I blame the Iraqi Ministry of Health. They are very busy with other things, rather than improving the services in the hospital. The government is doing really bad job because of the political conflict, and also there's a huge problem of corruption inside the ministry. Doctors know that, and they just stop crying for help and stop screaming that we want drugs, we want medication, we want equipments. They just have to deal with the fact, with the reality they have. They work with their limited resources.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin with TELL ME MORE. And we're speaking with Dr. Omer Salih Madhi. His new documentary, "Baghdad Hospital: Inside the Red Zone," premiers on HBO tonight.

There are some points of great inspiration in the film. One is the dedication of the doctors who have stayed, and the nurses, it has to be said. And there was one scene with the group of the paramedics, the ambulance drivers who are from different backgrounds and still continue to work together under very difficult circumstances. Let's play a short clip.

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

Ambulance Driver: (Through translator) We're all not brothers here. We all work together - Sunnis and Shiites together. My two colleagues are Shiites. Me, I'm the driver. I'm a Sunni. But we're all brothers, and we're going to stay brothers until we die.

MARTIN: How is that possible that under such pressure to choose up sides that these men can continue to do this? And the doctors also, I'd like to know, how - given the circumstances, how they can continue to treat everyone to the best of their ability?

Dr. MADHI: People in Iraq are human beings, and the civilians, really, they don't have problems with each other. The problems there is that there's an extremist group on both sides of this war, like the Sunnis and the Shiites extremists who are very coward to fight each other so they are targeting the civilians and trying to raise the fear and the suspicions inside those people. The people who are working in the ambulance station, the doctors and nurses in hospital, they are from different background, from different ethnicity and they are treating everybody. They don't ask somebody if he's a Shia or Sunni. They just want to live peacefully. They just want this war to end.

MARTIN: And I think the film makes clear just how constant is the violence there. You know, we hear - we get the reports of, you know, car bomb here, car bomb there, but for there to be their how constant it is. You also say in the film that the trauma for so many people as exacerbated by not being able to understand why this is happening and you have several people who have just escaped the bombing, who have just been injured, who say I cannot believe the Iraqis are doing this to each other. I can't believe that Muslims are doing this to each other. So it's hard for Americans to understand if you can't accept the reality with this is what's happening, how is there going to way forward?

Dr. MADHI: Well, unfortunately, now, people started to believe that these things are done by Iraqi, which is quite the truth to some degree by funding or by influence from outside. And now, in Iraq, like if somebody killed and he's a Sunni, they say, he killed by Shiite. If he's a Shiite, they say, he's killed by Sunni. I'm really sad to say this, but this is the reality there now, and the neighborhoods in Baghdad now are separated. There is purely Sunnis and purely Shiite neighborhoods, and people really scared to go in other neighborhoods. People now started to live with paranoia and they are scared from the others. But they're hoping this will end soon and they will return to live peacefully together.

MARTIN: I think after watching this film, one thing many people might want to know is there's anything that Americans can do to help the situation.

Dr. MADHI: Well, I wish they understand how the civilians lives in Iraq and how the people there are scared and they're under threat and they are injured on everyday level. I don't really know what Americans here can do, but I'm hoping by this film, which I really made it so that the outside world can see what's going inside, that the human tragedy that everybody lives inside Iraq. And at least if they realize that there's a problem and they start to think about the solution, that will be a chance by itself.

MARTIN: Dr. Omer Salih Madhi joined us from NPR New York. His documentary, "Baghdad Hospital: Inside the Red Zone," premiers tonight at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time on HBO.

Doctor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Dr. MADHI: Thank you very much.

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