Two days after his operation, NIQASH met with Hayman Jawar, a soldier in the Iraqi Kurdish military. Earlier in the week the 20-year-old, who joined the armed forces in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan three years ago, had been brought to Shar Hospital in Sulaymaniyah with serious abrasions to his leg and chin; his troop had come under attack in southern Kirkuk.
“I was taken in a car to Kirkuk and then to Sulaymaniyah,” the young man said, even though he was still unable to move his mouth properly due to stitches on his chin.
“Since June 2014 [when the Islamic State sparked Iraq’s security crisis], 9,415 members of the Iraqi Kurdish military have been wounded and 1,513 have been killed,” a senior member of the Peshmerga Health Foundation, Dr Shamal Jabar Yawar, told NIQASH. “But those figures do not include soldiers killed or wounded over the last week since the fighting for Mosul began.”
If those figures were included there would be many more casualties. “The Peshmerga Health Foundation has treated 3,000 wounded individuals since fighting began and undertaken more than 10,000 operations of different kinds,” Yawar said, adding that the number of operations was so high because some soldiers had to undergo several surgeries.
Unofficial numbers also suggest that another 200 individuals from inside Iraqi Kurdistan had to be treated after clashes with fighters from the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group in Kirkuk over the weekend.
Since June 2014, the local authorities have been training teams of combat medics who can give first aid to soldiers wounded in battle and then help get them to a hospital.
The total number of staff working directly on the frontline numbers around 50, plus 23 drivers. A second group that operates mobile clinics behind the front lines consists of five doctors, 25 medical staff and a further 15 drivers. These teams have mobile clinics set up in army camps where they try to stabilise wounded men before sending them on to the nearest hospital. The chief of Sulaymaniyah's Health Department, Miran Mohammed, says over a thousand of his staff have rotated through the battlefield clinics over the past two years.
The major problem for the teams of medics is the lack of armoured ambulances, says Awat Mahmoud Babakir, supervisor of the combat medic teams in Sulaymaniyah, who notes that his teams have treated over 2,000 soldiers over the past two years as well as some of the wounded men from the IS group.
“It’s not easy to get to the injured soldiers and then to get them away from the battlefield,” Awat Mahmoud Babakir explains. “the soldiers have to bring the wounded closer to us, where we can provide first aid.”
“We still cannot transfer wounded soldiers by helicopter and the lack of armoured ambulances means we can’t go further into the action,” adds Mohammed. “We are risking our medical teams’ lives and we actually lost two staff because of the lack of armoured vehicles.”
Mohammed says that most of the soldiers are hurt by snipers or bombs and this results in injuries to legs, chest and head. The doctor also notes that at the beginning of the security crisis, local military were being hurt a lot more but as the soldiers have gained experience, and learned about the IS group’s tactics, the injuries have decreased. Additionally, body armour has also cut down on the number of casualties, he says.
Although health services are provided to Iraqi Kurdish military in the regional capital, Erbil, and in another city, Dohuk, most of the medical action over the last week has been happening in Sulaymaniyah. This is because there have been more fights in the surrounding areas, in places like Kirkuk, Khanaqin, Jalawla, Tuz Khurmatu and Mosul. Soldiers wounded in these areas come to the three hospitals in Sulaymaniyah: Shar Hospital, the Sulaymaniyah Emergency Hospital and Chami Rezan General Hospital.
Bastoun Sarhad, 20, who had been shot by an IS sniper while trying to rescue one of his comrades, was happy to talk about the courage of Kurdish medical staffers working near the front lines. “These teams really support us,” the young soldier, who was still at the Sulaymaniyah Emergency Hospital for treatment, said.
Some of the injured Iraqi Kurdish are also sent outside of the country if they require more specialized care. Yawar says that over 900 people have been sent away and there are more than 50 currently waiting to go. Those requiring delicate neurological surgery, treatment of severe burns or implants for joints and limbs tend to be sent away for treatment. Most of the injured soldiers go to Turkey, India, Greece, Cyprus or Jordan for further treatment.
Ari Jamal, 34, is waiting to go to Germany for surgical help. He was shot in the left shoulder by a sniper and even after surgery, he still cannot move his left hand. He was told he needed neurological surgery which requires travel.
“I’ve done a lot of tests and I was supposed to be sent to Germany along with some other wounded soldiers,” Jamal says. “But thanks to the financial crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan, we are still waiting to leave.”
Just like the other wounded soldiers that NIQASH met over the past week, Jamal was grateful for the work being done by the medics on Iraqi Kurdistan’s frontlines. They are the only reason we are still alive, the soldiers say.