Mosul doctors struggle to save civilians on Iraq front line

A crowd of men rushed through the narrow hallway of Mosul’s al-Zahra clinic carrying a slight 10-year-old boy. Yousef Oday’s face was covered in blood.

A team of doctors quickly gathered around his cot. “What happened to you?” one of the men asked.

“I have no idea. I was bleeding on one side,” the boy said. He didn’t make another sound, lying motionless as a doctor put an IV into his arm. His eyes were wide and pupils dilated.

Oday was hit in the side of his head with a stray bullet as he was waiting in line to gather water from a well in eastern Mosul. Two other young men waiting with him were also shot. Dr. Ahmed Hussam methodically tended to Oday’s wounds. “He’s in shock,” he explained.

While Iraqi forces announce daily advances, the city’s civilians continue to be killed and maimed by indirect fire, clashes and counterattacks.

The Mosul front line in the city’s east is being pushed forward in two columns: one led by the Iraqi army’s 9th Division and the other by the special forces. In some places, Iraqi forces are just over two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the Tigris River that splits the city. But along the main highway that cuts through the center of Mosul’s eastern half, Iraqi forces have made hardly any advances at all.

The jagged edge leaves troops vulnerable to counterattacks, but also thousands of civilians exposed to ongoing clashes as the operation slowly grinds forward.

Oday was shot in al-Zahra, a neighborhood declared liberated nearly a month ago. Since then, Iraqi forces have captured nearly half a dozen other neighborhoods and districts, but have not managed to completely secure al-Zahra so that aid groups and supply trucks can access the hundreds of civilians still living there.

“This is nothing,” whispered one of the nurses in the emergency room where Oday was being treated. “We have people who come in here without any arms or legs,” she said, asking to only be identified by her first name, Malkiya, out of concern for her safety.

Doctors in the small clinic in eastern Mosul say that since the operation to retake the city began nearly two months ago, they’ve only received intermittent deliveries of supplies. Nurses say they’re running out of basic items like clean bandages. In a hallway that’s been converted into an emergency room, doctors say all they have are bottles of saline solution, gauze and iodine. Like nearly all of Mosul, the clinic also lacks running water.

Hundreds of other patients also filled the dim hallways waiting for antibiotics, cough syrup, allergy medicine or insulin. A woman and her three daughters said they walked 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) across a front line to reach the clinic to obtain antibiotics. Since the operation to retake Mosul began, temperatures have dropped and, without electricity or fuel, her children have all gotten sick.

The women spoke on condition of anonymity as they were still living in a Mosul neighborhood controlled by IS. “We have no protection,” the mother said, walking inside the examination room and lifting the black veil she wore to travel to the clinic. He youngest daughter screamed as the nurse gave her an immunization shot.

During the first few battles of the Mosul operation, IS fighters largely fled the villages around the city, giving Iraqi and coalition commanders hope they would do the same inside the city. But as the battle reached the city’s edge, intense resistance has repeatedly stalled advances and at times forced Iraqi forces to retreat.

Unlike in past fights where civilians were moved out of the way of front-line clashes, in Mosul, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has asked civilians to stay in their homes. The move prevents massive displacement – Mosul is still home to an estimated one million people – but it also leaves thousands in harm’s way and thousands more out of reach of aid organizations wary of operating close to the front.

The clinic inside Mosul estimates it has treated at least 800 severely wounded civilians since Iraqi forces first pushed into the city in early November.

“All we can do is work as a stabilization unit,” said Dr. Muhammad Hassan Ali, explaining that without the ability to perform surgery, most of the emergency cases he receives need to be transferred to a hospital in Irbil more than an hour’s drive away across bad roads and through half a dozen checkpoints.

Oday, the young boy, lost his left eye, but the doctors at the clinic were able to bandage his wound and slow the bleeding. As quickly as he was rushed into the building, he was carried out into an ambulance bound for Irbil.

“He’ll live,” said Hussam, the doctor who treated him. “He’s very lucky.”