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Hospital's recovery signals rising well-being in Iraq

While conditions are improving at the Central Teaching Hospital for Children in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq, the country still faces vast humanitarian needs.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 12, 2008

Newborn: A grandmother at Children's Central Teaching Hospital.

Scott Peterson/Getty images

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His colleagues warned it was too soon to return. Iraq was still dangerous, they said, especially for a doctor whose driver was killed in a failed assassination attempt.

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But Ghazwan al-Badawi could stay away no longer. His family is here and this is where his work was needed most. "Now, day by day, it is getting better," he says. "We've started to have optimism again. It is the beginning of a new hope."

Other doctors and health professionals who fled Iraq are slowly returning as violence declines, and quantities of medicine and equipment are available as never before. While Iraq's healthcare system is still plagued with problems that come from war, dictatorship, and years of sanctions, signs of recovery abound – and fill the halls of the hospital where Dr. Badawi now works.

The Central Teaching Hospital for Children is the largest pediatric hospital in Baghdad and has long been a barometer for Iraq's overall well-being – from the dark days of Saddam Hussein to sectarian violence during the war to the latest security gains.

But current progress is tentative, says Badawi, who remains torn by his decision. Optimism after Mr. Hussein's fall was buoyed by high hopes "of the US coming with all its facilities and equipment," says Badawi. "But we were wrong."

Professionals instead became targets for killing and kidnapping when sectarian violence surged in early 2006. After the attempt on his life, Badawi left Iraq for Jordan and then the US.

Now, his colleagues ask: 'Why are you back? It's not the right time – maybe four or five years,'" says Badawi. "But I can't live in peace while my family is suffering. We must all live in peace, or we all suffer."

Still, Badawi opts to see the hope in Iraq. Food security has improved in the past two years, for example, and Iraq has been able to import all the medicine and equipment the Health Ministry needs.

"The situation is not a humanitarian crisis [anymore]," says Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations special representative for Iraq who worked here in the late 1990s during the sanctions and oil-for-food period. But poverty persists. Four million Iraqis live in poverty in a nation with a large, $78 billion budget. And 4.8 million Iraqis no longer live in their homes or have fled abroad because of the war.

"The worst cases are the internally displaced Iraqis," says Mr. de Mistura. "They are on the edge, they need assistance." But on the plus side is that Iraqi income is growing annually by 7 percent.

As a bellwether for Iraq's health crisis a decade ago, few places were as grim as what was then called the Saddam Central Teaching Hospital for Children.

Back then, this correspondent witnessed two newborn babies, from two different families and younger than 15 days old, die within 30 minutes of each other. They were born too malnourished to survive, one more UN statistic in a 2002 report that noted an "increase in the number of low birth-weight babies from 4.5 percent in 1990 to 23.8 percent in 1998."