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Iraq: Filth And Deprivation Rack Baghdad's Only Mental Hospital

Baghdad's Al-Rashad Hospital was Iraq's only facility providing long-term care for patients suffering from chronic schizophrenia and other mental disorders. But like other hospitals throughout the city, Al-Rashad was stripped bare by looters in the days following the fall of Baghdad. The vast majority of its patients have fled. Some 300 remain, living in squalid conditions that grow worse by the day.

Baghdad, 26 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Before the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Al-Rashad Hospital was a respected psychiatric hospital, caring for some 1,400 patients in facilities that were clean and well-equipped.

Now the sprawling hospital compound is a scene of devastation. Looters have stripped the facilities of nearly all its possessions -- mattresses, tables, air conditioners, and kitchen equipment. Medical files have been plundered. Even worse, Al-Rashad has been left with no medical supplies, including the antipsychotic drugs used to treat schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

In the women's ward of Al-Rashad, the patients beg Fatima, a 29-year-old nurse, for cigarettes. Some women are sleeping on the tile floor. Stray animals wander through the barren rooms. A strong smell of sweat and urine permeates the compound.

In recent years, the International Committee of the Red Cross had invested some $1.5 million updating Al-Rashad's facilities and training staff in Western standards of compassionate care for the mentally ill.

But when U.S. troops entered Baghdad in early April, U.S. Marines opened the gates to the Al-Rashad compound, knocking down several walls and setting up a command center. Looters began to flow into the hospital, stripping the hospital bare of anything of value. Several of the female patients were reportedly raped by looters during the chaos. And nearly all of Al-Rashad's patients fled onto city streets -- including more than 100 committed for violent crimes and held in the compound's maximum security ward.

"Muslim charity organizations and relatives brought some of the mentally ill people back," said Fatima, who is one of only two full-time nurses still working at the facility. "But most of them are still on the streets of Baghdad."

Some security has been restored at Al-Rashad. For the past month, a detachment of 20 U.S. soldiers has guarded the hospital and sometimes intervenes to help control the patients. When RFE/RL visited the hospital, a fight had just broken out between two patients in the men's ward, leaving one -- an elderly man -- with a deep razor cut in one hand. Blood flowed from his hand as he stood in the sweltering, fetid ward, still exchanging angry words with the younger man who had attacked him. Fatima and her colleague, 40-year-old Salim Abudtaher, spoke to the men softly as other patients looked on, watching. Some shouted: "We want cigarettes! Saddam, where are you?"

Finally, U.S. soldiers separated the two men and decided the elderly patient should be sent to another hospital to have his wound properly treated.

"The soldiers are good men and help as they can," Fatima said, adding there is little she and Abudtaher can do when the patients get physically violent. It is 1 p.m., and the two nurses are the only hospital staff on the premises, despite daily visits from psychiatric doctors. "There are 10 [doctors]. They come at eight [in the morning] and leave around one [in the afternoon]," she said.

Salim Abudtaher said she and Fatima both fled Al-Rashad when the hospital was being plundered, and returned only with the arrival of the U.S. guards. Both women have received the $20 payments handed out to local workers by the U.S. administration, but otherwise they receive no pay and little support.

Abudtaher said they work seven days a week, and divide their time between the men's and women's wards. "Yesterday I was [on the night shift] in the men's ward. Tonight I will be on duty in the women's unit," she said.

Despite incidents like the day's bloody fight, Abudtaher said she is not afraid to be alone with her patients, even at night. She said the looters who destroyed the hospital were much more frightening.