Inside a Kurdish War Hospital

‘Peshmerga’ militia takes care of its own

Inside a Kurdish War Hospital Inside a Kurdish War Hospital
Shorsh military hospital is on the outskirts of Sulaimaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. The facility is exclusively for members of the peshmerga militia and their... Inside a Kurdish War Hospital

Shorsh military hospital is on the outskirts of Sulaimaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. The facility is exclusively for members of the peshmerga militia and their families.

Today the facility’s doctors and nurses care for pesh fighters injured in the war with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militant group, which has captured much of northwestern Iraq and routed the Iraqi army.

All peshmerga field medics possess the same qualifications as civilian first-responders, with additional training in battlefield trauma. They all have the equivalent of three years of experience. The pesh are Kurdistan’s main fighting force and has succeeded in battling ISIS to a halt near Mosul.

When a peshmerga gets hurt in combat, medics treat him first. If he needs more care, the militia takes him to the nearest civilian hospital in a car or ambulance. And if that’s not enough, the casualty goes to Shorsh. The Kurds lack the medical-evacuation helicopters that many richer armies possess.

The hospital has an emergency room and a staff of specialists that’s always on call. Two nights before we visited, Shorsh received three injured men—all of them had suffered bullet wounds while fighting near Kirkuk area. It took two hours to stabilize them.

Happily, the pesh have suffered only a few casualties battling ISIS. Medics and civilian hospitals have managed to care for most of them. So things were relatively quiet during our tour. The majority of patients were peshmerga dependents getting routine check-ups.

We met just one wounded soldier at Shorsh.

Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Thirty-year-old Hiwa Hussein Rassul is a senior pesh sergeant and the father of three. On June 22, he was riding in a pickup truck with 13 other militia fighters, returning from the front line at Mullah Abdullah village. Rassul was going on leave to see his family.

Young soldiers were taking pictures and joking around when a bomb exploded. Two peshmerga died. Ten were injured, including Rassul.

Shrapnel riddled his body, but he remained conscious. He said all he could think about was his kids.

After the blast, militants opened fire. Unable to figure out where the ISIS fighters were, the pesh fired into the air to get the attention of any nearby friendly forces. The militants ran.

Within five minutes, local people—Arabs—showed up and offered to take the wounded to a hospital. But the pesh refused. Rassul explained that although the locals may sincerely have been trying to help, there was no way the Kurds could be certain the civilians weren’t working with ISIS.

Eventually, two cars driven by Kurds arrived to transport Rassul and the other casualties to a Kirkuk hospital.

Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Shrapnel had entered the back of Rassul’s upper arm and exited the front of his upper arm and before lodging in his forearm. There were 10 pieces of shrapnel in his back. His neck required intensive surgery.

He transferred to Shorsh. Although it was not the reunion he had originally expected, his family came to see him at the military hospital. His wife cried when she saw him. Rassul said he was overjoyed to see her and their children again. He said he was glad to be alive.

But Rassul said he is anxious to heal so he can rejoin his comrades in battle. “If I could, I would go back to the front line now,” he said. “If I get better, I will go.”

“I am in my country,” he added. “If I die, it will be as shahid.” That means “one who dies for Kurdistan.”

He has difficulty seeing out of his right eye and has tinnitus in both ears. There’s possible ligament and nerve damage in his left arm. He said the doctors have not given him a straight answer on whether his hand will fully heal.

He said he’s not sure what he’ll do if he doesn’t heal. He said he’s peshmerga. He doesn’t know how to be anything else.

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