Desperate for Army Aid in Baghdad

The Iraqi Army pays an unexpected visit to Sadr City to distribute food, medical supplies and cooking oil to a desperate crowd of locals.
By By Andrea Bruce
Washington Post Staff Photographer
Monday, July 14, 2008

As the armored truck rounds the street corner, nurse Lamyia Hussein Mohammed paces the crayon-scribbled hallways of a Sadr City elementary school with an army-issued rifle over her shoulder. From inside the building, now a temporary patrol base for the U.S. Army, she can hear the truck bouncing and jerking, full of food, cooking oil and Iraqi soldiers preparing to face a crowd of locals.

The American soldiers didn't know the Iraqi army was coming today to bring food and help with medical care. Army Capt. Logan Veath drops his arms in frustration. The visit was planned at the last minute, and the Iraqis failed to arrange for a female soldier to carry out full-body bomb searches of women entering the clinic set up in the school. Lamyia, a medical volunteer waiting at the makeshift clinic, hands off her rifle and makes some calls.

The aid truck is an unexpected but familiar sight in this conservative Shiite neighborhood. People stumble sleepily from their homes, then break into a run, racing to get to the school. Children, experts at this game, are the first to reach it. Older men push each other out of the way. Women are the last to arrive. They trip over their billowing black abayas, thrown on hastily like housecoats.

The crowd gathers impatiently. Iraqi army Capt. Qiauce Frijohn uses a stick to push women back and smack the feet of teenagers, turning the line into sport.

Watching from a window, Lamyia snaps shut her cellphone with a nod of success after locating a female Iraqi soldier. "They are most desperate," she says of the waiting women. "This war leaves them without fathers, husbands. No way to buy food or medicine. Except for this."

Pushing each other out of line, people sneak onto the truck, reaching out of turn and climbing onto the bumper before the soldiers get a chance to hand out the food.

"This is how it always goes," says Iraqi army Lt. Col. Haithem Hosham. The Iraqi army delivers aid in Baghdad three to five times a week. Today, more than 500 local residents have shown up.

After nearly an hour, the female soldier arrives and escorts patients, three at a time, into a small, dusty office decorated with paintings by schoolchildren. Schedule books and student rosters lie open, as if abandoned in the middle of a school day.

Women shyly whisper their problems to Lamyia. Across the room, men meet with a male medical volunteer. Most cases involve heart problems or pregnancy. Also blood pressure, diabetes, anemia, asthma, malnutrition, vomiting, diarrhea and an outbreak of chicken pox.

"In the harder cases, where surgery is needed, there is nothing we can do," Lamyia says.

No exams are given, only advice, antibiotics and supplements. She would like to recommend local hospitals but usually doesn't.

"Most real doctors are gone," she says.

Washington Post photographer Andrea Bruce is documenting the lives of Iraqis in a feature, Unseen Iraq, appearing regularly in the World pages. For a photo gallery and previous columns, visit http://blog.washingtonpost.com/unseen-iraq.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company