Covered in dust, four-year-old Ahmed* sits on his father`s lap outside the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in west Mosul. The boy devours a biscuit that’s just been handed to him, covering his face in chocolate. For the moment, Ahmed seems distracted from the horrors he`s survived, including the death of his two brothers. The boy`s father Samir comforts the child`s grandmother who sits beside them, helping her drink water through parched lips.
Just a few hours ago, the family escaped through a deadly gauntlet of conflict and violence from the few blocks of Mosul`s Old City which are still under siege. The home they sheltered in was right on the edge of the battle between Iraqi forces and the Islamic State group (IS), marked by intense bombardment, airstrikes, suicide attacks, improvised landmines and sniper fire. This morning, the house they were in was re-taken by advancing forces. But the relief came too late.
"When the dust settled, I went in and began digging through the bricks. I heard my wife screaming and I uncovered them"
“[Three days ago,] my wife was holding our son when a mortar fell,” says Samir. “The wall collapsed in the room next door where my wife and sister were. At first, I couldn`t enter the room; there was so much dust I could not breathe. When the dust settled, I went in and began digging through the bricks. I heard my wife screaming and I uncovered them. I picked them up and carried them out. When I removed all the bricks I discovered my son was dead,” he says. “He was one month and five days old.” As Samir speaks, his grief-stricken mother alternates between mournful exclamations and filling in the background of the story through her tears. “My granddaughter died of starvation and I also had to put my grandson in the grave. Two of them; one starved to death and the other was hit by a mortar. … I buried them in the garden,” she cries.
Now, Samir`s wife lies on a hospital bed in a neck brace and his sister is across the ward. It is morning and as medical staff prepare for more patients, the sound of explosions can be heard from the front lines. Ambulance after ambulance, patients arrived. A little boy with burns covering his arms and legs. A woman appearing to be in shock, her face obscured by blood. A little girl in a flower patterned dress, right leg lacerated by shrapnel and left leg blown off at the knee. Wounded patients, mostly women and children, seemingly poured into the hospital, brought in from the front lines.
The emergency room turned into a brutal testament to the horrors this battle has inflicted on residents. The air filled with the sound of sobbing, wailing, cries of pain and shock, and guttural exclamations of relief after finally escaping. Family members accompanying the injured wore stories of hardship on their faces: malnourished cheeks, blank stares, weeping eyes and bodies covered in blood and dirt. The little boy with deep burns on his limbs still managed to gobble down biscuits, even as his face contorted in pain when dirty burns were cleaned by hand.
Our facility is one of only two functioning hospitals in this area, and the priority is life-saving assistance. Medics work urgently to clear beds for new arrivals by referring patients to other hospitals for follow-up treatment as soon as they are stabilised. Despite the influx of war-wounded patients, only a small fraction of the thousands of residents still thought to be trapped in the fighting are making it here. Our greatest fear is that the most urgent cases are dying in the battlefield due to the intensity of the fighting, unable to access life-saving medical assistance. Happily, for Samir`s family, his wife and sister are among those made it out on time.
*Names have been changed.