Humanitarian Aid in Iraq
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MARGARET WARNER: Today, the International Committee of the Red Cross suspended its work in Baghdad, after a staffer was killed by gunfire. Doctors without Borders has also suspended its work, after two staff members disappeared.
For more on that and the humanitarian situation overall, we turn to Amanda Williamson, the Red Cross spokeswoman in Washington. Welcome, Ms. Williamson. Tell us first about the circumstances that caused the ICRC to suspend its operation.
AMANDA WILLIAMSON: It’s the news that every ICRC delegate dreads. We knew yesterday that one of our colleagues, who had been accompanying some of our local staff back home, it had simply been impossible for our local staff to travel around the city without the protection of the Red Cross vehicles, he was actually on his way back from having dropped off some of the local staff when the vehicle in which he was traveling came under what appears to be from information we have gleaned so far a crossfire incident. He was seriously injured in that incident.
Two other colleagues in the same vehicle actually managed to escape the scene and immediately went back to our office to alert us to what had happened.
We then went through an excruciating 24 hours of not knowing exactly what happened to Vatche. We tried to send a team to the spot to retrieve to find out what happened. But we had to turn back because it was too dangerous. Today we got the very sad news that indeed he had been killed. We did send a team today out in the city to make a dash mission in order to retrieve his body. It’s a very sad day.
MARGARET WARNER: Our condolences. Tell us more about the situation in the hospitals and what your people have been seeing there.
AMANDA WILLIAMSON: We had seen now for the last four or five days when the fighting had really come into the streets of Baghdad a critical situation in the main hospitals in Baghdad that are receiving casualties. There has been a steady inflow of casualties into the main hospitals. At one point during the peak of the emergency about four days ago one hospital was receiving about 100 casualties an hour and then they told us they simply stopped track of even trying to count the figures. We know that it has diminished slightly over the last few days, that the hospitals are understaffed. They have power problems. They are overflowing with patients and they have also serious problems with water.
MARGARET WARNER: What are the nature of the casualties?
AMANDA WILLIAMSON: We know they are mixture of military and civilian. We don’t know the proportions but they certainly do include civilians. We have physically seen for ourselves women and children in the wards. As I say it’s very difficult at this moment to really take a step back and to evaluate the situation; we really been also with the hospital teams that are simply trying to react to what is a very, very difficult emergency.
MARGARET WARNER: What are the supplies in shortest supply?
AMANDA WILLIAMSON: We have lots of surgical supplies in Baghdad we had pre-positioned and the hospitals themselves had also taken the precautions of stocking up on basic supplies they would need. They have now started to ask us for things like sheets for the beds, for basic surgical supplies to perform surgery, first aid kits, dressings, anesthetics, and this we have been able to supply so far. Obviously as the situation continues then we really have to see how much we can respond. A major problem in what we have been thankfully able to address is water. Without water people simply cannot perform surgery, cannot treat patients. We have been able to truck water in. We have supplied 20,000 bags of water a day that but that again is something that really needs to be addressed as quickly as possible.
MARGARET WARNER: What is the connection between the loss of electricity in Baghdad in general and the problem of clean water?
AMANDA WILLIAMSON: Well, the electricity services the main pumping stations and the treatment plants. So as soon as you have a disruption of electricity obviously the main pumping stations and the treatment plants that rely on electricity to function simply stop functioning. We have managed to set up generators. They don’t run with nearly the same amount of capacity as the main electricity supply would provide. This has also been compounded by the fact that the staff that would normally operate the stations have not been able to work because of the fighting.
MARGARET WARNER: So are you starting also to see cases in the hospital caused by the lack of clean water?
AMANDA WILLIAMSON: The hospital staff had said to us that they were reporting people coming to the hospital with sicknesses that would be related to public health problems as well as poor quality water dysentery — diarrhea for example. This is really a major problem that we really want to address as quickly as we possibly can.
MARGARET WARNER: Would you say there are people dying in the hospital that orderly won’t have to die from their wounds if they could get adequate care?
AMANDA WILLIAMSON: We don’t know for certain. But it’s certainly very possible. Simply the sheer scale of the influx that the hospital staff had to treat, the fact that they were also understaffed the fact that we have hospital staff that have been very traumatized by their inability to be able treat the sheer scale of the emergency would lead us to believe that this is indeed very possible.
MARGARET WARNER: So what is it going to take? I gather your staff members have stayed there; they’ve stayed in the city. What will it take to get them back working again?
AMANDA WILLIAMSON: Well, we really have to take a day by day assessment of the security situation. We have at least today we have a situation where there was ongoing fighting in pockets. This has been compounded by the power vacuum that is apparently the case in Baghdad. And this lends an extra security problem because you have an environment where criminality can thrive, where there’s a basic sense of lawlessness.
This is in fact often one of the most dangerous moments that we face in terms of our own security. In fact around the world many of our security instances have been precisely linked to this very complex environment. So we really have to take it day by day. And it’s really a very difficult judgment call for a head of a team that sees massive needs but at the same time has to think of the safety of his personnel at the same time.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Amanda Williamson thanks for joining us.
AMANDA WILLIAMSON: Thank you.