Guðbjörg Sveinsdóttir, a psychiatric nurse, was invited to Baghdad in May 2003 by the International Red Cross (IRC) to evaluate the condition of mental health care in Iraq. During her time, she also visited Kurdistan and Basra. Ms. Sveinsdóttir shares her experieces in Iraq with Grapevine:
“Like everything else in the country, the state of mental health servies in Iraq was chaotic. Saddam Hussein had officially denied the existence of mental health problems in Iraq, so the level of care was not very developed, to say the least. The IRC had one mental hospital in Baghdad staffed by a few local doctors. Resources were very limited and I don’t think they’ve improved.
“The biggest mental health problems we were facing were post traumatic stress disorder and depression. The war, the sanctions, the looting, the escalating violence – all these things compounded made life pretty unbearable for many people. Of course, it wasn’t as bad then as it is now.
“There were so many things I saw and experienced which impacted me deeply while I was there, especially the children. When the water system broke down in Baghdad, the streets were flodded with dirty water. Children were outside bathing in it. I saw people standing in very long lines waiting all day for food and gas. One thing I remember very clearly was when I was in the city of Kerbala, a very beautiful city. I talked to some of the American soldiers there. They were very young, very inexperienced and they didn’t have a clue about the culture. I spoke to many, and they all seemed very unprepared to be there.
“But I’ll also never forget the tremendous strength a lot of Iraqi people showed. It was very moving. While most thought things would not be getting better any time soon, they did believe things would get better some day. They were just sick of being occupied, whether by Saddam or by the Americans.
“If the IRC ever returns to Iraq, I think I would probably go back. My experience there was very tense, but it was also very remarkable.”