Kidnapped, threatened, Iraqi doctor won't abandon post

McClatchy NewspapersJune 12, 2008 

BAGHDAD — Amal Private Hospital, named after the Arabic word for hope, stands in the center of Baghdad. Each morning, the war's broken, contorted and burned human casualties gather in the first-floor waiting room for checkups with one of Iraq's most renowned bone surgeons.

One by one, a nurse summons the patients, who are sitting outside in layers of bandages that give them the deathly look of mummies. The surgeon checks on shrapnel still embedded in the bodies of bombing survivors. He resets the broken bones of torture victims. He studies X-rays of legs shredded by bullets.

Then the doctor quickly steals home to his blockaded sanctuary a few yards from a police station, not to emerge until it's time for the next day's rounds at the hospital. He's already survived a kidnapping. His staff has dwindled from 36 surgeons to six.

With his British residency and comfortable savings, Dr. Muthaffar Kurukchi could leave, too, joining more than 15,000 Iraqi medical professionals who've fled the country since the war began.

Yet he continues to show up each morning, smiling and bespectacled as he works his way through at least 60 cases before 4 p.m.

He's heartbroken over the fragmenting of his country and disillusioned by the unfulfilled promises of the U.S. occupation, but he's determined to stay.

Kurukchi graduated from Baghdad University's medical school in 1963. He spent a few years in England, where he married a British woman, Mary Rogers, before returning to Iraq in 1971.

He became one of the country's orthopedic pioneers, earning his stripes by treating the horrendous war wounds of young Iraqi soldiers returning from the Iranian front in the 1980s. His government salary was about $360 a month; he supplemented it by opening Amal Private Hospital in 1989.

"For the government, we were working for peanuts, but at the same time, we had the ability to give medical services to the rich, to our neighbors the Kuwaiti princes, to the Palestinians," Kurukchi said. "I was able to live a very good life. Six hours of my day went to the poor, and I had the rest to myself, and I made very good money."

Kurukchi and his wife settled into a modest villa with a neatly tended garden out front. Their life was comfortable, though Kurukchi was under constant pressure to join Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. He refused, a risky stance that was forgiven largely because he was part of a team that treated Saddam's wife, Sajda, for 10 years.

The doctor managed to avoid Saddam's brutal whimsy, but Iraq could not. The Iran-Iraq war exhausted the country's stockpiled medicine and doctors' salaries dropped sharply. The ill-fated invasion of Kuwait drove the country further into economic ruin, with an international embargo that was blamed for thousands of preventable deaths because of the era's lack of medicine.

"That was a time when you would cry," Kurukchi recalled. "Saddam came on TV saying they were not going to stop all salaries, but they were going to make them nominal salaries. He said Iraqis would manage, and that was the birth of corruption in Iraq."

Outraged over the new wave of graft and how it chipped away at Iraq's high medical standards, Kurukchi sent his family back to England in 1994 and joined them the following year. But he found London unrecognizable from the freewheeling capital of his college days in the 1960s.

"They were anti-Arab, anti-Iraqi, completely. Once they asked where you come from, that was the end of the conversation," Kurukchi said.

He returned to Iraq in 1998 and, this time, vowed to stay. He poured his heart and soul into building up his private hospital.

"I learned my lesson, so I enjoy Iraq even more than before," Kurukchi said. "I adore my patients and I adore my friends."

Kurukchi watched from a hotel rooftop as U.S. armor rolled into Baghdad five years ago. His family was abroad, but his wife's cousin was covering the war for a British television channel. The cousin let him watch the scene through the lens of her video camera, zooming in on the advancing foreign forces.

"I knew things had come to an end," he recalled. "It was horrible. I knew what was coming. In other words, what's going on now."

"All Iraqis were glad to get rid of Saddam; no doubt about that," he recalled. But they weren't happy about the uncontrolled looting that came next.

"A week after the invasion, I went to see my sister in Mansour," he recalled. "I took the highway. I've rarely cried in my life, but I did cry then, seeing my city burning to my right and to my left."

Kurukchi's despair grew as looters rampaged through local hospitals, carting away computers, medical files, thousands of dollars in lifesaving equipment. He knew that it was only a matter of time before the mobs set upon his own hospital. He made a bold decision: to approach the U.S. Marine unit at the end of his street.

"I walked up and said, 'Where's your captain?' " Kurukchi recalled. " 'Tell him I have beer and that I would like to invite him to my home.' "

He said the captain showed up that day, and the next. They forged an unlikely friendship.

"He was smelly," Kurukchi said. "I asked him, 'When did you last have a bath?' He said, 'Three months ago.' (The housekeeper) filled the bathtub; he left all his arms in the front room and he took a bath."

The third day after Saddam's regime fall, Kurukchi said, the looters encroached on his hospital as well as Ibn al Haithem, an important teaching institution and the country's only hospital dedicated to ophthalmology. He tracked down the Marine captain.

"I said to him, 'Look, our best medical center is about to be looted. Can you do anything?' He sent me two tanks, which preserved my hospital and Ibn al Haithem," Kurukchi said.

Amal hospital, Kurukchi's institution, was the first to reopen in Baghdad after the invasion. Within a week of Saddam's ouster, Amal offered free consultations and X-rays for any wounded Iraqi. He said the waiting room was flooded with injured civilians.

Kurukchi continued to operate his clinic as the mayhem grew around him. By the summer of 2005, scores of people were dying in near-daily car bombings, and a vicious sectarian war was transforming Kurukchi's beloved, cosmopolitan Baghdad.

One sweltering day that July, Kurukchi's driver picked him up from the hospital at about 3 p.m., as usual. They'd driven barely a few yards when two cars sandwiched them and blocked the route. Gunmen poured out of the cars; they threatened to kill the doctor if he exited. Kurukchi's driver was released on the spot; the doctor was bundled into the back.

"From 3 p.m. to exactly midnight, I was sold from group to group like a lamb," Kurukchi said. "Every new gang that bought me switched me to their car. I said, 'Whatever you want, I'll get it.' "

The last gang leader was the fiercest, Kurukchi recalled. The kidnapper grabbed him by the belt and stuffed him into the trunk of yet another car. They drove for about two hours until they arrived at a house. Kurukchi could hear children in another room.

"He brought me water. I didn't drink it. He said, 'I'm sure you're hungry. What do you want to eat?' '" Kurukchi recalled. "I asked him, 'Are you Indian or Arab? An Arab would never eat or drink in front of his enemy. You kidnapped me for money. Until we've come to an agreement, you will be my enemy. After we agree, I will be your friend and we can eat and drink together.' "

"That could take a week," the kidnapper told him.

"I told him, 'What's the difference from death by thirst and death by a bullet? It's the same end,' " Kurukchi said.

The kidnapper appeared amused by his audacious hostage. The doctor recalled more of their conversation:

" 'As a gangster, you will be injured one day and you'll be forced to go to Kindi Hospital and they're going to treat you like a dog,' " Kurukchi said he told his jailer. " 'Release me and you can count on me to take care of you.' "

After 22 hours, Kurukchi was released. Interior Ministry officials summoned him to describe his kidnappers. Instead, he told the officials he'd disappeared with a woman and that the whole incident had been a misunderstanding.

The discretion paid off, Kurukchi said. The next day, he said, his kidnapper dropped by the hospital to return his cell phone and keys. After that, he came every week and had coffee, offering an inside look at a seedy, violent Baghdad underworld.

Six months into their bizarre camaraderie, the kidnapper developed an intestinal obstruction.

Kurukchi said he operated on his former captor, then never saw him again. The whole episode so terrified his wife that she fled Iraq.

"The next day, she left and never came back," he said, glancing at one of several framed photos of her that adorn his home. She died of a heart condition last year in Amman, Jordan's capital. Their three children — sons Emile and Antoine, and daughter Joanna — are scattered between Britain and Australia. Kurukchi has two grandchildren he's never met.

Still, he can't tear himself from Iraq.

"I am who I am because of Iraq. I was born here, raised here and educated here," he said. "I owe these people."

Kurukchi's daily routine takes him straight to the hospital and straight back. The kidnapping risk remains so high — the United Nations reports that at least 250 medical workers have been kidnapped in Iraq since 2003 — that his driver handles even his grocery shopping. He no longer can attend church, dine at restaurants or relax at a cafe.

"All those have become details from another life," he said with a wry laugh.

Three things get Kurukchi through the loneliness and segregation of this cloistered life: his deep Christian faith, his beloved patients and the weekly poker game he hosts for Baghdad's rapidly shrinking circle of prominent physicians. Even his poker nights have turned into poker days; the friends begin at 10 a.m. now so they can make it home by dusk.

His friends in England have called him crazy for staying. He responds that he wouldn't trade Amal hospital for the British crown. His caseload has swelled exponentially with the violence, but he's also lost patients because their neighborhoods now are walled off and segregated by sect, forcing them to find new doctors.

The wounds are different as well, with car bombs shredding people in more gruesome ways than he ever witnessed during the war with Iran. Then there are the civilian victims of U.S. airstrikes. Kurukchi is bitter.

"They couldn't take our oil by other means?" he asked. "Now we have 2 million orphans, 4 million wives without husbands. Is that noble? Is that ethics? Is that democracy? Is that Christianity?"

Kurukchi detests the news media's focus on the number of doctors who've fled Iraq. He doesn't like it when foreigners speak of a "brain drain" or the flight of the country's "best and brightest."

"There are still more than 20 million living here. And how am I different from any of these 20 million?" he asked. "I share my bread, and my fate, with them."

(McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this article.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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