NAJAF, Iraq—Sheep scampered off the runway and nomads emerged from their tents to watch the first plane in 15 years touch down Saturday on a desert landing strip in Iraq's holiest city.
While children jumped for joy at the rare sight of an airplane, the adults in the crowd were more excited about its precious cargo: $500,000 of donated emergency medical supplies to stock Najaf's sorely depleted hospitals. Across Iraq, doctors struggle to treat patients with a lack of medicine and outdated surgical equipment, but few cities are in such dire need as Najaf.
Two violent uprisings last year by the rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr left the Shiite Muslim nerve center in ruins. The main hospital was severely damaged in clashes between al-Sadr's militia and U.S. and Iraqi forces. At the height of the violence, two smaller hospitals carried out surgeries in reception lobbies. Ten months later, there's been little reconstruction of the hospitals and doctors said patients still bleed to death for lack of simple equipment.
Najaf's newly elected Gov. Asaad Sultan Abu Ghilal said he was frustrated by the central government's health-care bureaucracy. Important drug bids were mired in paperwork and doctors' urgent requests for supplies went unanswered, he said. Abu Ghilal took the unusual step in reaching out to a foreign partner: the Washington-based SkyLink, which operates flights for nongovernmental organizations in Iraq's deadly skies.
"I asked all the humanitarian agencies in the world to assist with our problem," the governor said. "Our province is in a renaissance period after the major damage and destruction. We are taking serious steps to prevent such shortages in the future."
SkyLink donated the half-million dollar shipment Saturday and the company's officials said it would follow up with a similar drop-off in the northern Kurdish capital of Irbil. Workers unloaded 90 boxes packed with painkillers, anesthetics and other emergency-room staples. Crowds of Najaf officials and residents clapped and eagerly rushed to help move the crates from the Russian-made plane.
"I saw the problems when I visited Najaf during the elections," said Mike Douglas, a former British military officer and SkyLink's regional director. "The health council at that time was crying out to NGOs about the lack of emergency medicine, so I decided to help."
Even on a happy day in this southern city, the dangers of Iraq were close at hand. Iraqi police and soldiers patrolled the runway. Before landing, the SkyLink pilot made spirals in the sky to avoid potential surface-to-air missiles from insurgents. Just last month, Iraqi rebels shot down a SkyLink helicopter, killing eight passengers. The sole survivor of the crash was gunned down by rebels, who videotaped the grisly scene and sent it to Arab-language satellite stations.
Najaf residents said they appreciated the risk the company took to help rebuild their hospitals. Many traveled from downtown Najaf to the remote landing strip, solely reserved for military use under Saddam Hussein, for a firsthand look at the plane. While it's far from a cure-all, the shipment was the most significant contribution yet to rebuilding the city's dilapidated clinics.
"I'm proud of all the good people in the world who are still thinking of us," said a Najaf resident in his 50s who gave his name only as Abu Sadiq. "I hope that this donation will improve the health conditions in Najaf."
The drugs were loaded onto trucks and taken to a warehouse, to be stored and distributed to doctors. Two hours after the trucks left, celebrants went home and sheep once again ventured onto the runway.
Munir al-Juaifari, a Najaf pharmacist, received a call on his cell phone. It was a colleague, telling him the shipment had safely reached the warehouse.
"The medicines will be ready to be distributed to the people starting from tomorrow," he said with a smile. "This will help our hospitals and health care centers to overcome the shortages."
(Salihee is a special correspondent)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.