Dr Salam Ismael, general secretary of Doctors for Iraqi Society, spoke to students at Leeds University about the siege of Fallujah, the media’s portrayal of the occupation and his work trying to save the lives of ordinary Iraqis.
You were in Iraq from the start of the war to June of this year, and you were also in Fallujah during the first siege in April 2004. You must have seen some terrible things.
Well, this is part of the norm, the reality there. What the media shows you is just the tip of the iceberg. Nobody is showing what is really happening inside Fallujah. The real story is horrible.
Yesterday I received a call from one of the doctors in Fallujah. He told me there is only one functioning operating room left in the city.
He told me American soldiers entered the [operating] theatre with their dirty boots and their guns. They seized two doctors who were in the middle of an operation and tried to arrest them.
The doctors told them they needed to treat the patient on the [operating] table— the patient died later. So they are interfering with doctors’ work.
The biggest danger now is typhoid, mainly because of the lack of sanitation and health services inside the city. The outbreak of typhoid will spread and mainly affect the children. It will be a big disaster.
At the same time there are dead bodies all over the streets, and that has increased the difficulty of the situation. In addition, soldiers have prevented aid convoys from entering the city, apart from ambulances working for the Red Crescent.
They have also prevented evacuation of any patient who is younger than 45.
The doctors described the situation to me inside Fallujah. There are no safe buildings—all the houses are scarred by bullet holes and bomb damage. We are facing a humanitarian crisis. People have no shelter.
The media is also ignoring the 15,000 refugees living on the outskirts of the city. They have no shelter, and it is winter. There is also an outbreak of typhoid among the refugees.
They have no supplies of food. They were eating the flowers, but now they have nothing.
The situation today is much worse than when I was last in Fallujah. The utilities, water and electricity, have been cut off from the city for 13 days.
How do you think the media could give a more realistic picture?
I will give you an example. I went to make a piece for Channel Four news and I met Jon Snow. I heard he is famous in this country. He said to me, “What do you think about the media in Britain?”
I told him, “It is far from the truth.” He started laughing and said to me that Channel Four is sometimes near to the truth and sometimes far from the truth. He told me to e-mail him when I thought they were getting far from the truth.
From that time I have e-mailed him every day and told him, “You are getting far from the truth.”
We are making a documentary as a message for Muslims in Britain showing pictures of Fallujah, the history of the city and what happened there.
We should support all journalists trying to give a real picture of what is going on.
Do you think the coalition forces have done a good job of trying to win the “hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people?
They won “hearts and minds” because they cut off the heads and took out the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. How can I forget what has happened?
I get nightmares, insomnia, I have lost my appetite as a result of post-traumatic stress. No one can forgive or forget. Peace cannot be gained by force. You have to love peace for peace itself. Democracy is rule by people for people. George Bush does not understand this.
Do you think there will be democracy in Iraq through the coming elections?
I don’t think there will be elections, but if there are then “we will never wash our hands”. It is a term we use in Iraq because of the experience of the Afghan elections.
In Afghanistan, President Karzai won the election before it started. It was a big scandal that they registered who voted by marking people’s fingernails. They said that once people had been marked that would stop them from being able to vote a second time.
But people discovered they could wash the stain off when they got home and vote again. So we have this saying that we will “never wash our hands on the day of the elections”.
It looks like the Americans are now going to attack other cities like Mosul.
The Americans will now rope British troops into a new battle, probably at Latifiyah, south of Baghdad. It is like Fallujah. That will be another big disaster.
Has any good come from the war?
If you want to be independent, then you can say there are good things and bad things.
Before the war I never in all my career faced a single case of heroin. In one night after the war I faced four cases of heroin overdose. There is now more alcohol abuse.
But there is freedom. I can come here, I can travel and speak out. But we lost the most important thing—security.
Was it worth it? Ask the child who lost 25 members of his family in one cluster bomb attack, or any of the 300 orphans in Fallujah. Over 100,000 people have been killed according to the Lancet. I don’t think it is worth it.