November 26th - A Boy with a Bullet in his Brain
28 Nov 2003
Modified: 20 Dec 2003
The US administration in Iraq has failed to provide or pay for treatment for a boy shot by its soldiers.
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Saif, who used to work in the hotel I used to stay in, asked me to come and meet his neighbours. Their son Baqer was shot by US soldiers and survived, but with a 9mm bullet lodged in his head. The CPA promised to help with his treatment and medicines but has given the family nothing: not money, medicines, treatment nor assistance with traveling out of Iraq to hospital in Jordan or beyond.

Baqer is four and a half. On May 26th the family were going to visit relatives. They were waiting for a taxi when there was an explosion. US troops started shooting. Baqer fell. He was taken to Al-Yermouk, the main trauma hospital for south and west Baghdad. He suffered injury to his left cerebrum and his left 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th cranial nerves causing partial nerve palsy which have impaired his sight, hearing, speech and walking. One of his eyes is unfocussed and unmoving. Whenever he tries to get off someone’s lap, he lists and staggers and falls over. His dad Ali says he can’t sleep properly, so he cries with tiredness.

He’s been taken to one doctor after another in the hope that someone will be able to do something to help. At first Baqer screamed, wriggled and squirmed out of his dad’s arms and flung himself out of the room in panic because he was sure Michael and I must be more doctors, come to poke and stare. It was a while before he decided we were friends. The doctors only prescribe medicines but the family can’t afford to buy them.

They live in Thawra / Sadr City, formerly Saddam City, a huge, poor and reputedly wild Shia district hammered by Saddam as a centre of resistance. The friend of Saif’s who drove us there was lost in central Baghdad, having not left Thawra for four years before the war because Saddam’s police were after him. Ali was a meat salesman but had to quit his job to take Baqer on the rounds of the hospitals. They’ve sold the TV, almost everything, to buy medicines. The house is bare but for rugs on the floor, a single light bulb and a lamp which takes over when the electricity is out, which seems to be most of the time, throughout Baghdad (including now).

Charities and NGOs helped the family to take Baqer to Jordan to see if the doctors there could help. He went on November 5th but the report from the Palestine Hospital says there’s nothing they can do at this stage. If the bullet migrates medially and inferiorly [for the benefit of the doctors among us] it could encroach on the brain stem so Baqer has to have regular scans to check it isn’t moving. If there’s any visible deterioration they’re to take him immediately on the 10-12 hour journey to Amman for emergency treatment. They’ve been advised to get him to hospital in Europe because the equipment and treatment he needs is unavailable in Iraq’s devastated hospitals. His eye is getting worse all the time and drops for keratitis are not working.

Ali sat surrounded by papers and photographs: the statement about the shooting, the medical report from his discharge from Al-Yermouk and the one from Jordan, pictures of the scene of the shooting, of Baqer’s damaged eye, of the bullet wound, of him still perfect in a family photo before the shooting, with sisters Heba and Zahra, 7 and 2. There’s another baby due soon.

A lawyer from one of the CMOCs (Civilian-Military Operations Centres) promised money for Baqer’s treatment but they’ve been unable to find the lawyer again on subsequent visits. After the visit to the Jordanian hospital, Ali went again to the CPA. They told him they were busy and to come back another time. The family are more fortunate than many in having support from various groups including Care International and Human Rights Watch.

There’s no dispute that US soldiers were responsible for Baqer’s shooting, that it’s a US army bullet in his head. There’s no knowing how many more families and individuals are going through the same struggle, trying to find the money for medical care, trying to get the forces responsible to give the financial help they promised.

For that reason, rather than start an appeal for Baqer, I think we need to demand compensation and financial support from the forces responsible, for all their civilian victims. At the moment the military institution has complete impunity for what its soldiers do and the soldiers have impunity within the military. No soldier has yet been disciplined for incidents like this. In terms of supporting Iraqi people, increasing the accountability of the occupying forces is probably one of the most important things to do.

Direct action, blockades, marches, compensation confetti in the House of Commons, letter writing to MPs or congress people, Blair, Bush and so on and the newspapers and all the rest of your powers of creative mischief and mayhem making are needed.