The fire that broke out at the neonatal intensive care unit in Baghdad’s Yarmouk Hospital, killing 14 new born babies, caused public outcry about mismanagement, corruption and lack of state services in Iraq – again. It also led to a public outpouring of grief about the tragedy on August 10. And now, even several weeks later, it still continues to generate rumours and conspiracy theories about how and why it happened.
Adding fuel to the gossip, another fire in another maternity hospital, Alawiyah Children’s hospital, broke out on August 25. The fire there broke out in the records storage area and almost reached a room where babies and children were being treated. However, in the end, there were no casualties although many records and documents were destroyed.
Locals have been speculating whether the two incidents were somehow related and have come up with all kinds of explanations and even conspiracy theories. This has not been helped by the conflicting information coming from official sources.
The fire at Yarmouk Hospital, a major health centre in west Baghdad, was caused by an electrical problem, officials announced immediately, before the fire had even been investigated. After this a committee formed to look into the fire announced that it had actually been caused by arson, basing that finding on the fact that petrol had been found near the neonatal unit. However, the committee also said that it was not sure about the arsonist or his motives.
Parents who were affected by the fire suggested that kidnapping was a motive, and that the fire had been set to cover this crime up. Straight after the fire some of the babies were taken to another hospital for treatment and others were pronounced dead at the scene. But DNA testing had to be used to determine which baby belonged to which family, leaving desperate parents in limbo.
Local TV stations began broadcasting interviews with distraught parents who couldn’t locate their children. One parent that NIQASH was able to track down said that eventually he had found his baby but he didn’t know if the other families had located their offspring. This left the idea of kidnapped babies in people’s minds.
The second possible motive for an arson attack in such an unlikely place was the theft of money from one of the offices near the neonatal unit in Yarmouk Hospital. On August 20, the Baghdad provincial council committee tasked with looking into the incident said that a criminal gang had been arrested, for the theft of IQD100 million (around US$83,000) that was in an office near the babies’ ward.
A senior member of the Iraqi parliamentary health and environment committee, Salih Mahdi Motlab al-Hasnawi, a former federal Minister of Health, rejected this explanation though and said the reason behind the fire was most likely an electrical problem combined with negligence at the hospital. Parents who were at the scene reported that doors had been locked to the wing that was on fire and that nobody knew where the keys were.
“The fire started in the air conditioning and then spread,” al-Hasnawi said. “And a fire extinguisher did not work which led to the fire spreading further. The presence of flammable materials nearby caused the fire to spread more. It is illogical to think that a gang started such a fire. Most of the committee have come to the conclusion that an electrical fault started the fire.”
News reports suggested it took fire crews several hours to get the blaze under control.
The head of Baghdad’s provincial council, Riyad al-Addad, had another explanation: He thought that the fire could be an act of terrorism, or malicious vandalism. There had been four similar incidents of possible vandalism at the same hospital during the past three years. The sewage system was deliberately blocked once and then the water supply was cut off. Another incident saw a fire set but no casualties resulted and in the fourth incident damage was done to the hospital’s generator. In all of the incidents, it was impossible to identify any perpetrators.
The fire has also seen a number of local political disputes come to the fore. The director of the district health board responsible for the hospital, who was dismissed after the fire, and the Iraqi Minister of Health, Adila Hammoud, traded accusations of negligence. The two have fought over several issues in the past too as they come from different political parties.
Although the reasons for it remain unclear, the second fire at the Alawiyah Children’s Hospital seems more likely to have been arson. This is mainly because the fire started in the records room, which would make sense if somebody was trying to hide evidence of wrong doing.
Burning records to hide corrupt practices or unwanted history is a fairly common tactic in Iraq and many locals thought this was the obvious answer to the fire at the second hospital.
As for the ordinary people of Baghdad, who were so impacted by the deaths of the babies at Yarmouk Hospital, they don’t have much faith that any of the ongoing investigations will unearth a definitive answer to the children’s deaths. They suspect that the committees are not above accusing an innocent party just to deflect growing popular anger. And they don’t even care if the committees announce that the fire was the result of neglect, corruption, damage to infrastructure or that it was security related. Despite the rumours and conspiracy theories, they already know that this is all part of daily life in the Iraqi capital.