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Children hit hard, suffering in Iraq's hospital wards

NAJAF, Iraq—Pfc. William Boos jumped at the chance to go on a humanitarian mission Monday. He would go to Najaf Children's Hospital, slip the kids a few treats and play games with them—or so he thought.

It would be just like the experiences he had at a camp for mentally and physically handicapped kids in central Alabama, where he had worked for several years—"play with them, joke with them, make them smile."

When he got to the hospital with the 82nd Airborne's civil affairs team that had come to "a needs assessment meeting," he took off down a hall toward a ward full of kids.

First, Boos saw a child on a gurney in shorts, sweating profusely, with his eyes closed. Flies covered him. A doctor said the child was too dehydrated to take an IV and probably wouldn't make it. Diarrhea, said the doctor.

The ward was full of children sickened from drinking dirty water or eating spoiled food. They couldn't recover without antibiotics, water and IVs.

The United States had bombed electrical lines near their villages knocking out the water pumping system so people found water from wherever they could. Looters had stolen supplies from the hospital after the bombing, because law enforcement had disappeared.

Boos went up to a child sitting on a cot. The soldier started drawing pictures. The child laughed. This kid seems OK, Boos told a nurse.

"Who knows in a few days," the nurse said in English.

For soldiers involved in humanitarian assistance in Iraq, it is a time of frustration. So much will happen eventually, they say, but for now supply ships and charities have to get in, and agreements have to be reached with hospitals. Until this happens, children, like the boy on the gurney, will probably die.

Even a few days could make a huge difference.

"We hope to have food, water and electricity for these kids in seven days, but, yes, sadly, we might lose some of them before then," said Army Dr. Erin Edgar from the 82nd Airborne.

"We have the water and could take it over, ourselves," Boos offered meekly.

But it is rarely the Army way. Proper channels have to be maintained.

"If we could do it ourselves we would, but we're not the hospital administration, and we have to keep our role clear," said Maj. Peter Buotte from civil affairs.

When he left the hospital, Boos gave his water bottle to a woman. Another woman handed Boos something.

He wasn't sure what it was because it was wrapped in a black scarf. At first he thought it was bread. But then it moved, and he realized it was a baby.

"Life," said the mother, pushing the baby in his arms.

He handed it back and walked away. But he understood what she was trying to say: "She can't keep her baby alive. I'm her only hope."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.