A special war story
A four-year-old girl, Khadeja, is brought to our TSP at Mosul. Iraqi troops have pulled her from a foxhole in Mosul's old town. The child's mother and father are dead. Suddenly the Iraqi Intelligence Service intents to take over the girl for interrogation, against all international laws. Our team is not accepting the situation and threatens to leave.
Doctor Gerhard Trabert was part of the team and documented the situation via Facebook. Here you can read his combined texts as blog post.
Mosul's old town is completely destroyed. The devastating effects of urban warfare are apparent everywhere: bomb craters, blown-up houses, totally wrecked cars, buses and trucks. In addition to the severely wounded soldiers and civilians who are brought to our outpatient care, of course the regular patients turn to us as well. Among them are many children who refuse to eat. Their state of distress is obvious. To be amidst all this suffering, this man-made destruction, this apocalyptic annihilation of life and living space, seems unreal, bizarre and unfathomable. This is real though. This is bitter, dumbfounding reality.
A four-year-old girl is brought to our mobile hospital at Mosul. Iraqi troops have pulled her from a foxhole in Mosul's old town. The child's mother and father had been IS fighters. The father was killed by an explosion; the mother was shot dead right before her daughter's eyes when she had tried to kill the Iraqi soldiers. The tiny little malnourished girl with her flaming redhead is tired, scared and exhausted, a multitude of skin abrasions spread across her entire body. As we finish the physical examination, the Iraqi Intelligence Service intents to take over the girl for interrogation. She only speaks Russian; apparently her parents were from Chechnya. Stefan, my medical colleague, unambiguously conveys to the soldiers that we will not accept this. There are distinct international regulations that unsolicited children must be transferred to an international civilian organization, with notification provided to the UN or their children's fund, the UNICEF.
After an abundance of controversial discussions, Stefan and I finally take the little redhead to a high-ranking Iraqi military officer. Discussions continue. Then Stefan drives off to bring our point of view forward to a General while our little patient and I stay at the military station, waiting. After an hour, Stefan is back. The girl is supposed to stay with the soldiers until a final decision has been made. We make it understood to the Colonel that we do not consent to this. Hearts heavy with grief, we turn to go. As we approach our Jeep, a soldier comes after us and asks us to come back to the Colonel once more. He signals us that the girl should decide where she wants to go. As she clearly shows she wants to come wit us, the Colonel gives his consent. She would be allowed to stay with us until a final decision was reached.
During the time spent at the military station, I had a notion that all the soldiers were uncomfortable about the girl being brought to the Iraqi Intelligence Service. They brought cookies, a banana, a little toy rabbit, and they would play a cartoon on their smartphones for our little fosterling, Khadeja, to watch. So good to see the Colonel follow his heart instead of his orders, at a place where brutal war predominates. Back at our camp, this little human is given a shower, some new clothes, and, finally, some decent food. Until tomorrow, our whole team will be her ‘adoptive parents’.
Cooperation on a Knife's Edge
Khadeja keeps crying, quietly repeating to herself: “Mommy, mommy.” To imagine this little being had to watch her mother being shot dead leaves us dumbfounded. By and by, she begins building some trust in us. She comes to me to sit by my side on the cot, her eyes shily and cautiously trying to make contact with mine. Finally she lies down to watch what I am doing. I try to find a pedagogical video on my laptop and finally come up with “Sendung mit der Maus”, a German children's program that takes me back decades to when I used to watch it with my kids. Khadeja seems to like it. I would like to think I have seen the faintest hint of a smile light up her face.
Suddenly, another crowd of Iraqi soldiers enters our camp. Their commander, a colonel-lieutenant, insinuated that he would take the girl with him now. Stefan, our Head of Mission, knows this commander. He has had several unsolicited children in his care before and has committed to handing them over to relief organizations. According to our research, there is a very high probability he never did. Stefan has a brief consultation with us. Very quickly, we all agree that Khadeja will remain in our care. The colonel-lieutenant receives our unequivocal answer: the girl will stay with us – if not so, we shall terminate our cooperation with the Iraqi army and leave Mosul. And just to prove how damn well we mean it, we declare a temporary cessation of work right away.
The colonel-lieutenant is visibly annoyed. Wildly cursing, his face flushed with anger, he leaves our camp. Success! Khadeja stays. Finally, our little fosterling falls asleep. Haunted by nightmares, she keeps waking up at night, shouting “Mommy, mommy” in distress. I try to comfort her, and by and by, the whole team drops by to look after the horribly traumatized little girl.
Khadeja wakes me up in the middle of the night as she needs to go to the bathroom. We make the journey together. She gets back to sleep but keeps waking up again. She is anxious, talks in her sleep, screams, lies back down again. A fragile little soul threatening to be torn to shreds in the crushing gear of war.
Striking the Tents
In the morning I get back to work in the outpatient care. Within no time, a long queue of patients has lined up: many children, babies, women, some men. All of a sudden our interpreter, Junis, shows up. Very troubled, he tells me soldiers have entered the camp again to pick up Khadeja. I rush back to the camp to find Stefan negotiating with the platoon leader. They are heavily armed, with a machine gun mounted on the roof of their armored vehicle.
The leader tells our interpreters that he has to follow orders and take the child with him as otherwise he would be punished. It is obvious he and his companions are very uncomfortable with their role. We keep arguing, but to no avail. Under protest, we hand Khadeja over to the soldiers. She is crying and glances at us sadly. Once again, Stefan makes it clear that we will immediately terminate our medical services, but he can't turn the tide. I leave the outpatient care after treating the two patients I had been examining.
Frustrated but determined, we start taking down our equipment. We discuss our decision in the team. Are we about to neglect all the other patients? After all they have absolutely nothing to do with the Iraqi army's line of action. Once more, they will be victims in this war. On the other hand, cancelling our cooperation is the only leverage we have. What will happen to Khadeja? What will happen to all these children that are most severely affected by war?
The lieutenant in charge of our mutually operated clinic appears. Apparently he has underrated our resoluteness until now. He asserts that he wants to keep up our cooperation by all means, and asks us to give him one hour to consult with his superiors and weigh in on the matter. For the time being, we're kept in suspense.
Khadeja surrounded by our team. Photo: Gerhard Trabert
Meet-up in the Headquarters
One hour later, Lieutenant Muhammad gets back to us with news. We have an appointment at the headquarters of the 9th Division of the Iraqi Ground Forces to discuss all further matters regarding Khadeja with the general. Through war-ravaged neighborhoods, Stefan and I make our way to the army headquarters.
We are greeted by several apparently important military leaders, among them a 3-star general. In the adjoining room there's a monitor, joysticks, small drones lined up on a table—modern day warfare.
Again we demand permission to hand Khadeja over to one of the international aid organizations (none of which are present in Mosul as the situation remains tense and dangerous). The general voices his concern that children might pursue what their parents began. We reply that we don't expect a four-year-old who is raised in a peaceful family to do so. I emphasize that I'm not only a doctor but also hold a degree in education. It's to-and-fro. Stefan repeats our threat to pull out of collaboration. Even more apparently important military leaders enter the room. Phone calls to Baghdad are made. Finally we are told that Khadeja would be brought back to our camp, and that we'd be free to hand her over to an international children's aid organization. Slight skepticism arises on our ride back to the camp. Will Khadeja really be brought back to us? Will they really allow us to bring her to safety?
We're back, waiting. A soldier is turned in to our TSP (Trauma Stabilisation Point). He has walked into an IS booby trap and has suffered a multitude of internal and external injuries. No respiration, no pulse. Surrounded by his upset comrades, we try all we can, but to no avail – he is dead. Routinely, the Iraqi paramedic team wraps him up in a human remains pouch. We take a short rest.
Then, the heavily armed military vehicle that first took Khadeja returns to our camp. The platoon leader is carrying Khadeja. She extends her arms to me and I take her in my arms and put her down on my camp bed. The soldiers are very relieved. They're not exactly fond of abducting little girls. Almost apologetically, they show us images on their smartphones, asserting that Khadeja had been asleep while she was with them. I watch cartoon videos with her again.
In an hour, we will be driving to a place outside Mosul under military supervision. Will this finally be the anticipated chance to hand Khadeja over to a UN children's aid organization?
As we are about to start, another case of emergency is brought to our medical center. While cleaning up their completely destroyed flat, a family has triggered a fire booby trap. The ten-year-old boy has burns covering his upper body, his upper arms and his face. Apparently more than 30% of his body surface is affected. We inject him with pain killers. Then we also give him something to calm him down as he is constantly calling for his mother, who apparently has been taken to hospital with severe injuries.
I take the boy to the General Hospital in an ambulance. The ride with blue lights and sirens through the bomb-damaged streets of Mosul is quite an adventure. Being able to hand the young patient over to a colleague in stable condition makes me very happy.
The Furious General
The military vehicle that will escort Khadeja and us out of town has arrived. The soldiers want to give Khadeja a ride in their vehicle but we insist she rides in our Jeep. It doesn't take a lot of talking to convince the soldiers. She is allowed to stay with us, and one of the soldiers is going to join us. I go sit in the back seat with Khadeja in my arms. The soldier gets on our vehicle as well, and we're good to go.
Khadeja smiles faintly. She's tired. Earlier, one of the paramedics from the Iraqi division that we cooperate closely with has brought rice. Khadeja pounced on the food—she was very hungry. She is still engulfing rice as we set off. Our journey takes us from West Mosul to safe East Mosul, past the omnipresent destruction and devastation that we are gradually becoming accustomed to. It is noon and the temperature is rising to almost 50 degrees Celsius. Khadeja falls asleep in my arms.
After about an hour's car ride, we stop. There is no hint of an international aid organization. Lots of military vehicles are parked near the building that we enter. We are led to a small room where we are greeted by to elderly men in plain clothes, looking somewhat unnerved and doubtful. Stefan and I are questioned: who are we, where are we from, what do we want. Then they take a look at Khadeja and start questioning her. There are military uniforms on a cloak hook in the little room. I turn to the elder of the two men, asking him to introduce themselves as we have no way of knowing who they are. He gives me an irritated glance and says he's the highest-ranking general in the district of Mosul.
The colonel general (or whatever – please bear with my ignorance, ambivalence and skepticism in respect to these insignia of hierarchy, power and authoritarian beliefs), is visibly annoyed and disgruntled. When introducing ourselves, Stefan and I had said we were doctors. Now the supreme general wants to know what kind of doctors we are. As we explain that we are medical doctors our interlocutor instantly signals more respect and appreciation. Then he makes a couple of phone calls. Judging from his gestures as well as the volume and tone of his comments, he is raging mad for being dragged into the decision on what to do with Khadeja. He's on the phone, talking over and over and apparently scolding the soldier who has escorted us, talking to important people in Baghdad.
Meanwhile Khadeja has almost fallen asleep in my arms. My eyes briefly meet with the general's and I lay Khadeja down on his bed in this small room. She falls asleep almost instantly. The general covers her with a blanket – cautiously and passionately, I must say. Then he gets back on the phone.
The Ice has been Broken
Finally the general asks me how long I had been working as a doctor. For almost thirty years, I reply. Then he tells me his patient history and asks me for a cardiac examination. I have my stethoscope and a pulse oximeter on me so I begin auscultating his heart, measuring his pulse and blood oxygen. Finally I tell him all is well. He is visibly relieved. Somehow it appears the ice has been broken. He tells our interpreter that handing Khadeja over to an international aid organization would be much to his interest. Meanwhile his aide has put on his uniform and nods at us. He asks which organization we intend to hand the child over to. We reply that we would choose ‘Save the Children’. Further phone calls.
Khadeja seems to be fast asleep. Sometimes she gets agitated and murmurs “Mommy, mommy” before her exhausted body falls back to sleep. The general superior conveys he yet has to talk to another important person. Stefan and I are tense. After a couple of unsuccessful tries, he is finally talking to the desired counterpart. He turns up his phone’s speakers, and his facial expressions, gestures and inflection help us get the gist of his call. At times it appears aggressive and hostile, but in the end, the send-off is gentle, along with a nodding smile. He tells us that all has been settled now, and that we may leave with Khadeja. He says he hopes the incident will impair the German-Iraqi relations. We answer no, not at all – not if unsolicited children can be taken care of in a quicker, less complicated way in the future. We make our farewells then I lift up Khadeja who is fast asleep. She feels very heavy and relaxed. Still escorted by military vessels, we continue our ride.
Khadeja in Safety
During our fifteen-minute ride, Khadeja is sleeping in my arms. We turn off into a camp and notice UNICEF and ‘Save the Children’ signs propped up by the entrance. Soldiers escort us to a cabin container, and Stefan and I, with Khadeja on my arms, walk in. The general’s aide-de-camp fills in a form. Stefan and I exchange glances, without talking we agree we won’t hand over Khadeja to any soldier here either.
Suddenly two women enter the cabin. In English, they introduce themselves as representatives of the aid organization ‘Save the Children’ for the town of Hamman Al Ill. They say they are social workers for the organization, and they’ve already heard about us. Have we really made it!? Stefan takes down the contacts of the women and their organization. The ADC takes his leave. We say thanks. I hand over Khadeja, from my arms to the social worker’s arms. Khadeja is crying. Wearily screaming, she clings to me tightly. Get it over with, says Stefan. As I follow suit, I can feel the tears welling up in my eyes. Not here, and not now, I say to myself silently. I look Khadeja in the eyes and gently stroke her head as I let her go physically.
On our way back, Stefan, our awesome interpreter Tiger and I exchange high fives. We have made the seemingly impossible happen through the humanity that is present in every human being. May Khadeja, a potential enemy in this war-ridden country, be given a peaceful, loving future.
We are all very relieved. To see how obviously happy the escort soldiers were to see Khadeja turned over to ‘Save The Children’ means a lot to us—their pleasure was authentic. Of course, there is more cheering as we get back to our camp. The Iraqi soldiers in the drop-in clinic express their joy and approval, too. There is an open display of solidarity around us. We will keep track of Khadeja. And the most wonderful and amazing thing is yet to come: Our interpreter, Tiger, who is married and has three children, agrees with his wife that if none of Khadeja’s relatives can be found, they would like to adopt the special girl from Mosul. So obviously, he too will keep a close eye on her further fate. Stefan and I have promised him our financial support for his family and Khadeja.
Author: Jonas Grünwald