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Interview with Omer Salih Mahdi

HBO

In order to tell this story, you had to put yourself at great risk. Why did you do it?

Omer Salih Madhi

I was desperate to get the story out. I'm an emergency room doctor, and I've worked in one of Baghdad's worst hospitals since 2001, and I've experienced horrible scenes since the war started. And I always felt weak, desperate, and unable to do anything but just watch people die. So when I started to do journalism, I always thought that I should do something about the emergency room. And when I started making films, always in my mind was this idea of doing a film about the emergency room.

It was quite difficult to do this film, not only because it's risky, but because it was very difficult to get permission (from the Iraqi's). And getting people to speak to me inside the hospital was really difficult. But finally I got enough material to make the film, and I'm happy that it will now be broadcast here in America.

Yes, the casualty figures are decreasing. But the reason for this is a lot of people have fled Baghdad, or fled Iraq to neighboring countries.

HBO

Americans have a very limited view of what's actually happening in Iraq. What is the reality of life there like today?

Omer Salih Madhi

Well, the reality is Iraqi civilians are living in constant fear, and they're scared that they might lose their lives at any moment, either by explosion, or being kidnapped, or killed. Iraqis are really isolated from their government. They're living in neighborhoods under the control of the insurgents, or under the control of militias or gangs. You don't have any real authority that you can go to and seek help. If you're being threatened, or you're scared, you just have to deal with it on your own.

People are desperate and crying for help. They're angry at the government. They're angry at the insurgents, and the militias. And they're angry with Iraqis killing each other, and they don't understand why.

It's very difficult to get this story out to the world because we are really isolated. It's very difficult to find people to speak to you, especially in Baghdad and in other violent provinces. And in addition to these difficulties, journalists are at risk. They are under threat from Al Qaeda. They are under threat from the insurgents. They are under threat from the militia, and also under threat from the government itself.

Unfortunately my government is really unhappy about my showing this film to the outside world. That's why they gave me a hard time to get permission. And after I got permission, I faced a lot of difficulties. I think my government wants to show the world that everything's fine, that they are doing a great job. But the reality is the government is isolated from average Iraqis. We see them only on the TV, and we hear their speeches which have nothing to do with our lives. We live under continuous threat, and we are scared twenty-four seven.

HBO

Based on your experience, are things there improving as the American media would have us believe?

Omer Salih Madhi

When I left Iraq at the end of August, 2007 and came here things were really bad. I'm still in touch with a lot of people there, with friends and relatives in Baghdad, and the truth is, things aren't improving. Yes, the casualty figures are decreasing. But the reason for this is a lot of people have fled Baghdad, or fled Iraq to neighboring countries.

And also neighborhoods are now segregated into purely Sunni or purely Shi'ite neighborhoods, and those neighborhoods are isolated from each other. People are staying in their neighborhood, and they never leave it, unless they have to do something urgent outside. If they want to leave it, they have to make sure they avoid the other ethnic neighborhoods. That's why the casualty figures are decreasing. But it's not okay that one person should be killed.

So really things aren't improving. There's the problem of the refugees. There's the problem of people who've been forced to leave their houses, and there are other people who occupy their houses because they were forced to leave their homes. So, what sort of improvement is that?

The other thing since I came here, I've heard a lot of Americans asking if it was worth it to remove Saddam, or why Americans are still fighting in Iraq. I think after five years it's too late to ask these questions. We have a reality now on the ground. And I hope Americans are thinking what can be done to fix these problems. What sort of help can they provide the innocent Iraqi civilians who are suffering every day? The American troops are really the only neutral, powerful authority available there. People are suspicious of the Iraqi government. They're suspicious of the Iraqi security forces because there are a lot of kidnappings by people wearing Iraqi Interior Ministry uniforms. So people really don't feel safe when they see the Iraqi security forces, beside of the well-known infiltration of those forces by the militias.

So the only safety they feel is when they see the Americans because they're not connected with any militia or insurgency group. There are some people who are attacking the Americans, but the main violence is among the Iraqi themselves. And by targeting civilians and creating this fear and suspicion inside people they can control them.

I'm hoping that by going public with this story I'll get more reaction from people, that they'll listen to me, they'll know I'm from the inside, that I'm carrying the real picture, and I'm telling you the real story.

HBO

What does the future hold for the Iraqis?

Omer Salih Madhi

I wish I knew. I mean, the situation is really bad. People are really scared and full of hatred, and also they're angry about what's happening, and continues to happen. I don't see any solution in the near future, but I'm hoping the Americans can do something for the Iraqis because we are really helpless. We're caught in a civil war, and we've done nothing wrong, we just wanted to live a decent life, like anybody should live. But we've been targeted for many reasons. And a lot of people are killed. Personally, my family was targeted several times. They're now living outside Iraq.

So I hope this film will give Americans the real picture of what's going there. There are no services, there's no electricity, there's no water, there's no fuel for cars, or generators. Life is really difficult, with no electricity, with no fans, with no air going, and in winter you freeze because there's no electricity for hot water. I'm hoping that by going public with this story I'll get more reaction from people, that they'll listen to me, they'll know I'm from the inside, that I'm carrying the real picture, and I'm telling you the real story.

Baghdad Hospital: Inside the Red Zone