Desperate Days for Iraq's Ambulance Drivers

Baghdad's first responders are busy. But saving lives is nearly impossible in a deteriorating city. Ambulance drivers are often shot or arrested, road blocks impede rescues and there aren't enough ambulances in the first place.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts. In Iraq today, a series of bombings in predominately Shiite areas of Baghdad killed at least seven people and wounded dozens of others. Gunmen also assassinated a high-ranking official in the country's Industry and Mines Ministry.

The U.S. military blamed Sunni insurgents, who are increasing their attacks in the capital before an expected crackdown by U.S. and Iraqi forces. The relentless violence means a constant need for emergency medical care, but calling an ambulance may be of no help.

NPR's Anne Garrels has the first in an occasional series on a city in collapse.

(Soundbite of dispatch radio)

ANNE GARRELS: When this ambulance got to Yarmouk Hospital in Central Baghdad, the emergency room was already jammed with casualties and awash in blood. Overwhelmed doctors told the medics to take the latest bomb victims to another facility, precious minutes or more away.

(Soundbite of hospital)

GARRELS: As they loaded the wounded back into the ambulance, relatives demanded they also ride inside. They refused to get out, even though this meant others whose lives hung in the balance would be left behind. A fight broke out, with some of those escorting wounded banging the ambulance with their rifle butts. They got their way.

(Soundbite of siren)

GARRELS: But the overloaded ambulance didn't get very far before it was blocked by a checkpoint and backed-up traffic. The relatives grew hysterical.

The driver did what he could, but none of the cars would move aside.

Please clear the road, he shouted. Have you no morals? Please open the road. I have critical cases.

(Soundbite of shouting)

GARRELS: Iraqi soldiers at the checkpoint did nothing to help. When the medic checked the pulse of one of the bomb victims, he realized he was dead. He was afraid to tell the relatives. They'd once again pulled out their guns and were threatening everyone in sight. Adel Tafid Mohammed(ph), manager of the central ambulance department, says his teams face problems from all sides.

Mr. ADEL TAFID MOHAMMED (Manager, Central Ambulance Department, Baghdad): (Through translator) A few days ago, when one of my teams was transporting a patient with a gunshot wound to the chest, the police stopped them and locked them up for five days. They thought the patient might be a terrorist.

GARRELS: Hussein Alawi Abdul Hassan(ph) is in charge of the South Karph(ph) area of Baghdad.

Mr. HUSSEIN ALAWI ABDUL HASSAN: (Through translator) Our ambulance crews sometimes get stopped when they are carrying emergency cases late at night by American troops. The searches could take more than an hour, by which time it's too late.

GARRELS: Then there are insurgent bombs. A driver and medic were killed by a roadside explosion this week, and threats closed down the entire ambulance service on Tuesday.

Baghdad, a city of six million, has just 80 functional ambulances. Many have been damaged, and the health ministry has provided no funds to fix them. Drivers have to wait in long gas lines, forced to turn down calls when there's no available fuel.

The ambulance staff includes Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, but as the city is increasingly divided along sectarian lines, Sunni drivers can't go to Shiite areas, and Shiites aren't welcome in Sunni neighborhood. Medic Haidar Shahid(ph) says ambulances are not above suspicion.

Mr. HAIDAR SHAHID (Medic): (Through translator) We never discriminated like this in the past. Just six months ago, we could drive anywhere. We're neutral, but no one trusts anyone any longer. We don't care about your sect, but when a driver gets shot in a neighborhood because he's the wrong sect, I can't force him to go there again. In some areas, the situation is so bad, no one can go there.

(Soundbite of dispatch radio)

GARRELS: The city's emergency communications network is regularly jammed because of Iraqi and U.S. military traffic. The ambulance teams are overburdened just taking care of bombings and shootings. The dead are sometimes left on the street because there's not enough room to transport them. Calls for ordinary illnesses like a heart attack or a stroke are often simply ignored. Families have to find their own way to the hospital in those cases.

At the end of yet another long day, medic Jabar Abud Ali(ph) shakes his head as he looks at yet another patient he couldn't save.

Mr. JABAR ABUD ALI (Medic): (Through translator) If we had reached the hospital in 10 minutes, we could have probably saved him.

GARRELS: He says he works in a battlefield. He says it's called Baghdad. Anne Garrels, NPR News, in the Iraqi capital.

ROBERTS: Iraqi staffer Saleem Amir(ph) contributed to that report.

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