Diary of an Iraqi ER Doctor Turned Journalist: Where Western Media Could Not Travel

I was born in Baghdad in the late '70s. Aside from brief trips to Syria, Jordan, and the United Kingdom, I lived in Iraq my entire life before coming to the U.S. in 2007. I grew up within an educated middle class family. In 2001, I graduated from Baghdad University's College of Medicine and started to work as a resident doctor at Al Karkh General Hospital in Baghdad, which is affiliated with the Iraqi Ministry of Health. This is where I practiced medicine until 2005. I was then transferred into a small primary health center at Al Mada'n area (a small town located south of Baghdad). Al Mada'n area was under total control of Al Qaida insurgents and it was difficult for me to go through the checkpoints twice a day. At the time, I was working as a translator for America's National Public Radio, so I quit my job as a doctor and continued as a journalist instead.

Under the old regime, there was no freedom, especially for doctors. We were not given our Graduation Certificates and were not allowed to travel abroad which prevented us from finding jobs outside of Iraq. We were also prevented from working in the private sector. In the public sector we were poorly paid, working for as little as three dollars a month.

When the war began in 2003, I was still working in Al Karkh General Hospitals. I continued to work at the hospital throughout the war, there were only six resident doctors and three specialists treating the many wounded who were brought there. I treated hundreds of patients from all over Baghdad, which included civilians, former Iraqi soldiers, and even looters. Looters came to our hospital when Baghdad fell, we arranged ourselves in groups in order to protect the hospital. We used the weapons that Iraqi soldiers left in our hospital after we treated them. It was too difficult to shoot people, even if they intended to hurt us, so we called on the Marines to help protect the hospital from them. We were fortunate to have the Marines there, without them the hospital might have lost everything. The U.S. Marines protected our hospital, they put their military tanks near the hospital front and back doors, and they toured the hospital day and night providing us with a secure environment to continue our jobs.

After the war, my friends and I were full of optimism. We were happy to be free of the dictator and hoped that Iraq would be reborn as a free and democratic country. I always felt that we were going to be a developed country and that I should develop myself to participate in it. I worked with various agencies; one in particular was "Architects for People in Need" as the coordinator of the medical program.

On January 2005, I met George Packer from The New Yorker magazine. He was looking for an interpreter to accompany him and Deborah Amos, a reporter from NPR. They were heading to Basra in the south of Iraq to report about the first national election. I was introduced to them by a mutual friend. We went to Basra and I spent three weeks with George and Deborah. I was fascinated by their job and by the power of journalism. They were able to carry people's voices and carry them to the world.

I always felt myself weak being a doctor in Baghdad. I used to watch people dying because we never had the simple medication or equipments to save lives. I always told myself I was vulnerable and alone. I felt that I could not do anything to change that by being a doctor. After I experienced the strength of journalism I decided to change my career.

I started working as a translator for NPR in February 2005. I started as an interpreter, but as things grew more dangerous in Iraq, such as the kidnappings and killings of foreigners, I started to do more tasks for NPR. I would venture out into the street looking for stories and interviews.

In June 2005, Guardian Films in London offered me training for video camera use, filmmaking, and a security course for hostile work environments. I traveled to London on June 18, 2005. I spent three weeks training and learned how to use the camera along with how to make short documentary films

By February 2006, I was working to gain access to film inside the ER of Al Yarmouk Hospital. It is personal for me because during the war, I always had the feeling of desperation. It is difficult as a doctor to be alone and vulnerable while watching people die. Thus began my effort to film what would be called Baghdad Hospital: Inside the Red Zone (which will debut on HBO on January 29th).

I endured a long struggle with the Iraqi Ministry of Health to gain official permission to film inside the hospital. Initially, they did not like the idea and I was refused four times. On one occasion, I asked a manager why they were against the filming, he answered: "We don't want to expose our dirty laundry, you are a doctor here and you know what I mean." Despite the setback, I continued trying to get the permission, until I finally received authorization in May 2006.

I officially had the permission to begin filming the hospital. On June 5, 2006, I started filming at the Al Yarmouk Hospital. The hospital was totally under the control of the Mahdi Army Militia and the neighborhood was under the control of the Suni insurgency. I had to reveal my identity while working due to official procedures. I filmed around the hospital for four weeks and with the ambulance crew for two more weeks. During this time, I received numerous threats from the police, Iraqi Commandoes Forces, and Mahdi Army members who were touring the hospital day and night. These groups threatened me verbally and dragged me out of the hospital on several occasions.

The Al Yarmouk Hospital and the entire Iraqi Ministry of Health were under the control of Mahdi Army Militia that belongs to Sadr movement, lead by the anti-American radical cleric Muqtada Al Sadr. They made the Iraqi Ministry of Health, along with all Iraqi hospitals and health clinics, bases for their operations. Some people were scarred to go to the hospital for fear of being kidnapped.

Despite my attempts to avoid them, the militia kept a close watch on my activities. On two occasions they came and took me, along with my footage, to see what I had filmed. They told me they were monitoring the tapes because they received information that I filmed their people inside the hospital and they did not want them to be on TV. They seized one of the tapes from me because one of their men was shown briefly in one shot. For fear, I apologized and I gave them the tape.

My last week in the hospital, a group of Iraqi Commandos who belonged to the Iraqi Ministry of Interior invaded the hospital while I was filming inside the ER. They arrested me and dragged me to their car outside. I tried with no avail to explain I was a journalist. They took my camera along with my credentials. They proceeded to slap and beat me while accusing me of being a terrorist and filming for the purpose of giving their pictures to other terrorists.

I tried to explain that I was not a terrorist, but they didn't believe me and continued to beat and humiliate me. They took me to Al Nissor Square, a base at the end of the street where the hospital was. When we reached the base there was an American military patrol, they saw me and asked my captors what my story was. I spoke to the officer in English and I explained to him who I was. The Iraqi officer told the Americans that they arrested me by mistake and they were sorry.

After this incident, the chief security officer of Al Yarmouk Hospital was killed. I decided to stop filming inside the hospital because of the risk, and instead I started to film the Ambulance crew in the Al Mansour area. I accompanied the crew to bombsites where they evacuated the causalities. I was with the ambulance crew at Al Washas area in Baghdad after a car bomb went off. When we reached the area, the Mahdi Army Militia was already touring the neighborhood. They searched the ambulances and saw me with my camera. They dragged me out from the car and took my IDs and copy of the Ministry of Health credentials. The Militia was furious I was filming, however I was lucky that one of the ambulance's drivers was from the neighborhood and knew the group. He told them that he knew me very well and I was not really a journalist, I was a doctor working on a project for the hospital. They told me they would let me go because they knew the driver and that I should stay inside the car otherwise they would kill me. They said, "This is the second and the last warning, if we see you out of the car or if we see you filming we will kill you."

After I completed this film, many tragedies followed. My brother was kidnapped in November 2006, and was shot in the head. Miraculously, he survived but lost one eye and sight in the other. My younger brothers were kidnapped in January 2007 while they were on their way home after school. We managed to recover them after I contacted several people I know as a journalist. The ultimate pain came when my father was kidnapped last June. I found his body at a Baghdad morgue a week later.

My family has since relocated to another country, and I came to the United States. I am pursuing a Master's Degree in Journalism on a Fulbright Scholarship at Ball State University. I stay in contact with my friends and some colleagues back in Baghdad on a regular basis. There is so much information that people do not know about life and death in Baghdad. Many still live in fear. And there are those that do not want the story told.

Omer Salih Mahdi is filmmaker of the upcoming HBO documentary Baghdad Hospital: Inside the Red Zone, premiering exclusively on HBO on January 29th. For more information about BAGHDAD HOSPITAL: INSIDE THE RED ZONE, visit www.hbo.com.