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Baghdad mental patients missing, suffering after hospital looted

BAGHDAD, Iraq—It's been nearly three months since Baghdad fell, and the al Rashaad State Hospital for the Mentally Ill is still missing nearly 500 patients.

When Saddam Hussein's regime fell, looters stormed the hospital's gates with guns and climbed over its walls. In two days, they got away with television sets, air conditioners, ceiling fans, water coolers and sewing machines. They grabbed medicine and file cabinets, door handles, light fixtures, chairs, tables and beds. Years of medical and psychiatric records were destroyed.

But the most crushing loss was the patients themselves. In the chaos, hundreds of them disappeared into the streets. Others ran in confusion and panic to the hospital's garden, only to realize they had nowhere to go.

"We have recovered some of the patients, and some of them found their families and their families brought them back," said Dr. Raghad Sarsam, a psychiatrist at the hospital. "But we are still missing about 500 patients. Most of them are homeless. They are probably begging in the streets."

The large government hospital has treated mentally ill patients from all over Iraq since it was founded in 1950.

It's struggling now without reliable electricity and clean water. It's typically 115 degrees in Baghdad, and the hospital is scorching inside. Some patients sleep outside in the shade, curled up in the fetal position. Most are on medication. Some had their regimens of antidepressants severely disrupted when the cabinets full of drugs were stolen.

When the door to the women's ward is opened, wild-eyed women in dirty pink smocks and shorn hair beg the nurse for water.

"We have a woman who is 20 years old and a woman who is 90 years old," said nurse Jinal Falha. "We need beds, blankets, sheets, but most of all electricity and ice."

In an open courtyard surrounded by barbed wire, the women sit on the floor. Some rock back and forth. Most are barefoot.

At least four women were raped during the looting. Another patient had a baby a week ago. Her tiny daughter, malnourished and underweight, sleeps on a dirty cot covered by a thin pillowcase. The nurse said the mother was schizophrenic and refused to breast-feed.

One female patient was shot and killed during the looting and is buried on the hospital grounds.

Nuria Jasem regularly visits her son, Ali Abid Hamadi, who has developmental disabilities.

"I came and got him before the war but I can't keep him at home. When he is at home it is like he is in a jail," said Jasem, who sat with her son under the shade of a palm tree. She fed him home-cooked food with a spoon and brought him blocks of ice in a cooler, because ice is the main thing he asks for. "Here, the doctors know how to treat him."

The International Committee for the Red Cross, which has worked with the hospital since 1998, is helping its dedicated staff rebuild. They are trying to get generators up and running so that the hospital will have some electricity.

Sarsam, the psychiatrist, said that while he saw the most acute cases, everyone in Iraq was suffering from mental fatigue.

"As in any country that has fought a war and lost it, most people are mentally and psychologically exhausted," he said. "Everyone is in a state of despair, and people are jobless. The lack of security is the number one problem. A lot of people have depression and anxiety about the future. We are living in a state of post-shock."

The lack of electricity and water—plus the delay in forming an interim government—has fueled anger and bitterness among Iraqis at the American-led occupation.

Baher Botti, another psychiatrist at the hospital, said his patients—as well as Iraqis in general—were increasingly paranoid about the aims of the U.S.-led occupation.

"There are constant rumors that the Americans are withholding the electricity on purpose," Botti said. "Everyone is helpless and paranoid. If the conditions do not improve soon, the whole population will rise up."

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

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