Iraq: "The gratitude from our patients is remarkably humbling"

An MSF nurse shares a series of heartbreaking encounters with patients in Kirikuk, northern Iraq.

14 Feb 17
Mariko Miller Canadian Nurse Iraq

I’m watching a little boy in the arms of his mother. His hands are desperately grasping at the air around him, with an acute hunger that is painful to observe.

There is a package of biscuits in a box in front of the little boy and I watch his eyes focus in on them. He grasps the biscuits, then struggles with the plastic wrapper, and this image of him stays frozen in my mind.

He is too young to be so hungry, too young to understand the decisions his family had to make to survive, or how this journey will define his future.

A deadly journey

Around the little boy, a crowd of people are scattered in groups on the ground, huddled around boxes of food.

Their eyes are darting around me with a hypervigilance I haven't seen before.

They are eating desperately after six days of hunger; suffering under the control of armed groups for nearly two years.

The boy is one of 647 people from the town of Hawija, Iraq, a place suffocated by suffering.

They have travelled here, to Kirkuk in north Iraq, where Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is providing emergency healthcare.

All of these new arrivals chose to embark on a deadly journey that brought them here.

Those caught trying to flee Hawija are executed. Those who make it out have to travel seven kilometres at night through a desert scattered with landmines and improvised explosive devices - here snipers sometimes hit their marks.

"We only see the ones who make it, the ones who have survived the perilous journey and reached the entry points beyond the front line - we know there are many who have been left behind."
mariko miller

Many families were executed after being caught trying to escape. It is a calculated risk they have taken: that to survive, they might die.

But the people in front of me right now have made it.

They are alive.

The families they leave behind

Two little kids lost their mother in another landmine explosion yesterday en route.

The air I breathe in is blanketed by suffering, and it is shedding layer after complicated layer all over the land.

Many women who come to me have tears spill out of their eyes as they talk about the families they left behind – in an area hit by aerial strikes and where an upcoming offensive is expected.

There is a young woman who lost her entire family yesterday when they stepped on a landmine in the dark, and her grief is so palpable, so horrifying.

There are many other people who sit silently, self-protective, eyes diverted, eyes that have seen more than eyes ever should, in a state of shock that feels impenetrable, yet necessary, because they are not yet free. They must still survive.

"Inshallah"

There is an older man who sits alone, short of breath and with a loud audible wheeze.

I am giving him some Ventolin so he can breathe, but instead of breathing better, he starts to cry, and tears keep falling out of his eyes. His son is in Hawija. This is all he needs to say.

"There are many people who sit silently, self-protective, eyes diverted, eyes that have seen more than eyes ever should, in a state of shock that feels impenetrable, yet necessary, because they are not yet free. They must still survive."
mariko miller

Sometimes it is the hardest thing, to hear these stories and maintain a sense of professional composure, when I feel the tears just behind my eyelids, paralysed but wanting to drop like rain.

I have no idea what to say other than, “Inshallah, [God willing] your son will arrive safely”.

The man looks at me with glassy eyes and repeats, “inshallah”, and looks up to the sky.

"Removing shrapnel from little limbs"

There is an eight-year-old boy who confronts me because his little sister is sick.

He tells me that he has not slept in days because at night the women sleep, and the young boys keep guard. He is serious and strong, his emotions flat.

I see children hiding food in their pockets, and the sight of this hurts my mind because they are still in survival mode.

During this last week, several children have come through with blast injuries.

Our doctor has removed shrapnel and metal from little limbs and the team has safely transferred them to the emergency hospital in Kirkuk, which MSF is supporting.

We see only the ones who make it, the ones who have survived the perilous journey and reached the entry points beyond the front line - we know there are many who have been left behind.

Overwhelming courage

A young man collapses on arrival as he exits the truck.

He is unresponsive and pale, but alive. He is carried to our clinic and, while I grind my knuckles into his sternum to get him to respond, I see tears spill out of the edges of his eyes.

The man lies paralysed on the floor, weeping, until finally he is able to sit up.

"While I grind my knuckles into his sternum to get him to respond, I see tears spill out of the edges of his eyes."
mariko miller

He tells me how his parents were recently killed and his brother is in Hawija. His wife is pregnant with their first child and he feels overwhelmed by uncertainty.

We sit on the clinic floor and the man's pregnant wife joins us and they cry together.

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He thinks I have saved his life and, with clasped hands, he tells me he will pray for me every night.

His courage overwhelms me.

MSF: exactly where we need to be

We are building our project in Kirkuk from the ground up, and we are preparing for the days to come.

We have started training staff in the main emergency hospitals and are gaining access at entry points to provide a response for war-wounded and emergency arrivals.

Our medical teams are growing quickly to build capacity, and the solidarity of the team makes it easy.

The intersection of humanitarianism and medicine here reminds us of MSF’s identity, and the need for our presence is obvious.

The gratitude from our patients is remarkably humbling and, as heavy as the air is in pockets here, we are all exactly where we need to be.

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