Deafened by the War on ISIS
Thousands of Iraqis, collateral victims of the war on the terrorist group, have found themselves left with war deafness that goes untreated.
Photos by Sebastian Castelier
A version of this article originally appeared on VICE France in November 2018.
The 50-something taxi driver is parked in the rubble of buildings destroyed by airstrikes from the international anti-ISIS coalition. “Speak up, please—I can’t hear you,” he implores with a grimace. He’s a driver in the streets of Mosul, once a stronghold of the jihadist organization in Iraq, and he’s handicapped.
Like him, thousands of Iraqis lost their hearing between 2014 and 2017 from the bombs that rained down on Mosul to free the city from ISIS’ stranglehold (during which time more than 9,000 civilians died). Over time, some will recover a certain amount of their hearing; others never will, their hearing nerves now ripped apart by the sounds of war. “I’ve seen more people than I can count bleeding from their ears after their houses got bombed,” recalls Saif Saadaldean, 34, a nurse who led a makeshift urgent care clinic during Mosul’s liberation. “There wasn’t any decent medicine available, so we just put cotton in their ears for treatment.”
This ailment, sometimes called war deafness by the medical community and recognized in France as a war disability, is caused by violent explosions and worsened by the presence of artillery and airstrikes. “From 90 decibels on up, the human ear and particularly the auditory nerve can be affected or harmed,” explains a Mosul ENT doctor, who requested to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the topic in post-ISIS Iraq.
There have been more than 14,000 airstrikes conducted by the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria since 2014, according to the independent monitoring organization Airwars, but the strikes’ long-term effects on the population are largely unknown. Having deployed CAESAR self-propelled howitzers on the Mosul front during fire-support missions, the French Army stressed in a press release from October 2017 the importance of "[ensuring] that no collateral damage can occur to the population, or to infrastructure such as schools or hospitals"—a claim contested by many observers. (The military spokesman for the Global Coalition Against ISIS did not respond to VICE's interview requests.)
"War doesn't care if you're rich or poor. Everyone is the same when faced with a bombshell."
His expression proud as he stands on the stoop of his neighborhood mosque, Abdulwahab Saleh Hamid exchanges a few words with his friends. He sports a white dishdasha, the traditional uniform for Iraqi men. “Who caused my hearing loss?” he asks, voice trembling with anger.
“The war,” responds one of his acquaintances gloomily. “Whether it’s ISIS, the Iraqi army or the coalition—it’s the war.”
At age 57, Hamid lost 60 percent of his hearing after his house was bombed, which killed two members of his family. “My ear went pssshhh—the auditory nerve partially ruptured,” he says, yelling to make himself heard.
“War doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor. Everyone is the same when faced with a bombshell,” declares the ENT doctor. He notes, like his colleagues in Mosul, that around 10 percent of his patients are war deafness victims. How many have been affected overall? He doesn’t know. “We aren’t very precise with our statistics in Iraq. There are a lot of cases we don’t know about,” he says. Furthermore, many patients who can’t afford to go to a private or public hospital in the first place never come forward about their hearing loss at all.
The Iraqi authorities offer no potential solutions for the victims. “I went through all the steps to get financial compensation,” says Hamid, who met with several humanitarian organizations and governmental authorities in Baghdad, Iraq’s administrative capital, to plead his case. “I’m an educated man, I studied law, and yet I don’t hear anything at all. What must it be like for uneducated Iraqis? They get nothing.”
In the weeks after ISIS’s fall in July 2017, 20 patients came to Mosul’s general hospital daily to treat their hearing loss from the war. Today, the hospital’s ENT and cervicofacial surgery department remains busy. “We see tens of thousands of these cases in Mosul,” says Dr. Jamal Naser, a doctor who specializes in hearing problems. When contacted by VICE, a representative for the Iraqi Ministry of Health in Mosul refused to comment, stating that the sensitivity of the subject prevented him from “being able to communicate any information whatsoever on this topic.”
On Thursday, October 11, the medical personnel who specialize in hearing troubles are making their way into the consultation room of Mosul’s general hospital, which is open six days a week from 8:30 AM to 1:00 PM. In the halls, the patients wait in rows to be checked out. Other than the animated, noisy play of a group of children nearby, all faces are sad and dark, with no smiles in sight.
"The war killed me when I lost my hearing."
Among those present is Sabah Shehab Ahmed, 50, who lived next to a textile factory that got bombed in March 2017. “Ten bombshells fell on the factory,” he recalls, “And my ears imploded from the force of the explosions.” A man of modest means, Ahmed just spent over $17 USD—the equivalent of two days’ work—to take a tonal audiometry test at Mosul’s general hospital and buy a few medications. “The war killed me when I lost my hearing,” he says.
Sporting a white medical coat, Dr. Naser explains that in the best of circumstances, these patients suffer a tympanic perforation, which can heal on its own—or else severe damage to the auditory nerve. “The nerves can’t be repaired. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever,” he says. Affixing a hearing device to the ear can help, but unfortunately the hospital has none to offer due to lack of funds.
“All we can do is examine the patients to see what level of hearing they have; we can’t offer any hearing devices or treatments,” explains Saadallah Abdulaziz Khuder, head of the Mosul general hospital. “People with money can get them at specialty stores.”
Aqeel Qais Saadaldean doesn’t know whether his auditory nerve is ripped or not; his family is too poor to afford quality medical treatment. The 13-year-old lost a large portion of his hearing in May 2017, when the outskirts of the family home were bombed in an airstrike. “I felt this huge pain in my ear, but our first priority was to stay alive,” he recalls.
“The kids who went deaf in the war will be socially isolated, unable to communicate with their friends,” explains the anonymous ENT from his Mosul office. “Their lives will be affected forever.”
Standing at his mother’s side, Saadaldean is suffering. Though his family speaks loudly so he can understand, he still doesn’t hear them well. “I’m uncomfortable,” he explains. “Other kids make fun of my handicap and call me ‘the boy without ears.’” To help Saadaldean, his uncle gave him a hearing aid, purchased for barely $35 USD at a pharmacy. But the device was of mediocre quality; it made a constant buzzing sound and Saadaldean finally had to take it out.
Struggling to feed themselves on an income of $115 USD per month, the family doesn’t have enough money to go to a private doctor. Furthermore, “the public hospital doesn’t offer treatment or medicine—just appointments without a follow-up,” laments Saadaldean's mother. As he waits for treatment, Saadaldean dreams of one day becoming a doctor himself, so he can help the country get back on its feet—physically and psychologically—in the post-ISIS era.
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