Dispatches

al Rashad

Inside Baghdad’s largest psychiatric hospital, during an insane war

From the April 2005 magazine
Photograph by Rita Leistner
Located in Sadr City, one of Baghdad’s poorest neighbourhoods, al Rashad was attacked by American tanks in April 2003. Looters ransacked the hospital soon after, stealing anything of value, burning medical records, and raping six patients. Two years later, the hospital is still rebuilding. “What takes a day to destroy takes years to rebuild,” said Dr. Sultan, head of one of the hospital’s two wards.

In the months leading up to the election, Iraq was on fire. The ground shook and the sky darkened with smoke. In Baghdad, the streets were deserted, storefronts shut. Masked insurgents toting ak-47s buried explosives under the asphalt. Fundamentalist militants bombed liquor stores and hair salons. Kidnappings plagued the country. Women donned veils out of fear, and honour killings returned, allowing men to murder sisters, mothers, daughters, or wives for acts of perceived disobedience. The violence spilled right up to the gates of Baghdad’s largest psychiatric hospital, al Rashad. Inside the walled compound, there was an illusion of safety, where staff and patients could hear the explosions, but could not see the fierce battles raging outside. Al Rashad is home to 900 patients, 300 of them women, many of whom are schizophrenic. Isolated by mental illness, they come here from all over Iraq: Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Arabs, Turkomans, and Kurds. In a country divided, they’ve found community. For nearly six months and over some twenty visits to al Rashad, I was drawn to these women, lonely and abandoned, many of them simply dropped off at the hospital like unwanted goods. Sometimes, I heard their hopes of leaving the hospital, of getting married, being reunited with families, husbands, and children. Most have lived at al Rashad for years, losing track of time and the outside world, as the old Iraq slips away under the burdens of conflict.

Photograph by Rita Leistner
A press briefing broadcast from the nearby Coalition Authority headquarters in central Baghdad. Television is one of the few conduits to the outside world for patients.
Photograph by Rita Leistner
Bushra al-Jorani, thirty-four-years old, has lived at al Rashad for thirteen years. Her dream was to marry an artist and write poetry. One night, she slipped a poem under my pillow that read: “Oh World! / Is this my fate from God? / Oh World! You turn your back on me / Only words relieve my tears, which increase day by day / What happened to me? I remember the joy of my youth / But all of time is against me / Nothing but tears remain of me.”
Photograph by Rita Leistner
There are very few activities for patients to occupy themselves with during the day. Smoking is a favourite pastime and nurses hand out cigarettes when they are in supply. The woman in the brown headscarf, who is legally blind, loves to smoke.
Photograph by Rita Leistner
Tharaik Yassin, twenty-seven-years old, checked into al Rashad a few months before the fall of Baghdad. Tharaik and her cousin Unis had been in love for many years, but her father would not permit their marriage. In September, her father visited the hospital and told her that Unis had married another woman. Tharaik didn’t believe it: “Unis made me a promise,” she said. Her father replied, “I’m leaving you here for good.”
Photograph by Rita Leistner
When Nadia Sherwan, whose hands are shown above, arrived at al Rashad fully veiled, the first thing the nurses did was remove her black abaya. A divorce, unaccompanied travel to Iran, and several romantic affairs had embarrassed Nadia’s family, and her brothers had been beating her. Nadia’s legs were a mass of bruises and cuts. “I had many boyfriends, and I loved them all,” she said.
Photograph by Rita Leistner
Latifa Ali and her eighteen-year-old son, Hayder, both patients at the hospital, were granted a day pass to visit their family. Upon arrival they were not welcome. “Oh. It’s you,” Latifa’s daughter said. On the way back to al Rashad, Hayder rested his hand on his ageing mother’s arm. Latifa’s eyes welled with tears. She is mentally stable, not prescribed any medication, but has been a patient for twenty years. “Don’t take photographs that make me look crazy,” she asked. “I’m not crazy.”
Photograph by Rita Leistner
“You have an interesting nose,” I said to forty-year-old Lamiya Aidan Kahumayes. “My husband hit me in the face with a pipe,” she replied.
Photograph by Rita Leistner
Patients pace the courtyard in the Zenab ward. When the military attack destroyed the outer walls of the hospital, patients fled into the streets of Baghdad. Most returned in the months afterward, but others remain unaccounted for.
Photograph by Rita Leistner
Sabria Aziz George is a voluntary patient who owns a house in an upscale Baghdad neighbourhood, and has a degree in chemistry. She also holds a key to one of the women’s wards, and often said, “I have all of their histories in my heart.” Sabria believes she is a saint, and at night she scribbles notes she thinks are transmitted to her directly from God, advocating an end to war. When I left the hospital, Sabria politely protested. She waved goodbye and asked, “Are you sure you have to leave so soon, my dear? We are just starting to have fun.”
Photograph by Rita Leistner
Mayada Mahmood Shkri, fifty-four-years old, pinched my bicep and smiled. “I like to keep fit. Would you like to see me do my exercises?” In the 40-degree shade, Mayada stretched upward and downward, then side to side. When a nearby explosion shook the ground beneath the hospital, she said, “Don’t be afraid. I feel safer here than out there. I don’t want contact with the conflict in the outside world. I hate war, these many wars. But I do like life. Sometimes one finds strength, like a drowning person.”