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Domestic Accidents; Self-Immolation Kill More Kurds Than War


In the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, which has seen little of the sectarian violence plaguing much of the rest of the country, doctors say they treat more people burned in household incidents than injured by explosives. Many of the patients at one specialized hospital are women who doctors say have set themselves on fire in suicide attempts. A higher number are children, who are injured in domestic accidents.

A terrible phenomenon is manifesting itself in Kurdish society here. Women who have problems with their husbands, parents or in-laws are attempting suicide by setting themselves on fire. In the largely patriarchal society, women have few rights, are often illiterate, and often have no one to turn to for help.

At the Emergency Management Center in Irbil, head surgeon Dr. Husen Ibrahim Taha says the mortality rate among these types of burn victims is extremely high.

"Most of them die, unfortunately, because most of the burns are big burns, more than 70, 80, 90 percent [of their body]," he said. "Most of them are above 90 percent, because they use kerosene or gasoline to burn themselves."

Kazim is the head nurse for the adult burn unit. He says self-immolation is a serious problem in Kurdish culture.

"Sometimes in one month we have 10, eight cases, sometimes 11, sometimes 13," he noted. "But all the time we have [cases]. If we did not receive the suicide cases, I think, in one month, we will receive only 10 patients."

Kazim says the women who do survive go on to face even more problems, because they are disfigured or disabled. The hospital lacks a psychiatrist or a social worker, so little counseling is available to patients.

Greater awareness about self-immolation is needed in Kurdish society, and Kazim says he has participated in several television and radio programs that have taken on the subject, but he feels they have not made an impact.

Another problem is the high burn rate among women and children in domestic accidents. Dr. Taha highlights the severity of this problem.

"In our locality here, in Kurdistan, burn victims are for sure much bigger [numbers] than war victims in Kurdistan at the moment," he said.

But household burn accidents are not limited to the Kurdish region, and the hospital in Irbil receives some of the worst cases from all over Iraq. All patients are treated free of charge.

Hannah, 30, is the mother of four, and is expecting again. Three weeks ago, at her home near the city of Mosul, she sustained third degree burns over 45 percent of her body.

Many Iraqis cook on small stoves that are fed by gas from a metal bottle. Hannah says her gas bottle was empty, so she was cooking on an open fire. A flame from the fire ignited the bottle.

Hannah was brought to the hospital in Irbil, where she says she has received excellent care. She says the doctors and nurses are like family to her now.

Cheman Abdul Karim, 19, was brought to the hospital four days ago, after a similar accident.

"While I was cooking I added some kerosene to the fire and it exploded," she explained. "They took me to the hospital in Kirkuk, but they were very busy, because there was a car bomb attack that day, and so they sent me to Irbil."

Cheman sustained burns over 30 percent of her body, including her face, head and chest.

Large numbers of children are also victims of these types of household accidents. Dr. Taha says such accidents could be prevented.

"It is due to ignorance of the parents, and also due to our house modifications. Our kitchens are very small, and they cook on the ground, and this is the main cause of burns in children," he explained.

The hospital has just four surgeons and about 200 nurses to treat the burn patients, as well as patients with war injuries, such as victims of car bombings, landmines and gunshots who are brought from other parts of Iraq. With limited technology and a great deal of dedication, they are making a difference in many peoples lives.

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