On the Frontlines of an Iraq ER

Topics: International Education, College of Communication Information and Media

January 22, 2008

Baghdad Skyline
Ball State University student and Fulbright Scholar Dr. Omer Salih Mahdi put his life on the line to make "Baghdad Hospital: Inside the Red Zone," which made its American debut on HBO Jan. 29 at 8:30 p.m.


Al-Yarmouk Hospital, located in the most dangerous part of the most dangerous city in the world, is the epicenter of hope and despair for thousands of wounded Iraqi civilians and their families. Filmed by Salih Mahdi within the facility, which has become a "field hospital in a civil war," the documentary chronicles the chaos both inside the ER and on the streets of Baghdad. 

Other HBO playdates:

  • Feb. 6 (9:15 a.m., 8 p.m.)
  • Feb. 9 (3:30 p.m.)
  • Feb. 12 (4:30 p.m., 11:45 p.m.)
  • Feb. 17 (12:30 p.m.)
  • Feb. 22 (3:15 p.m.)
  • HBO2 playdate:  Jan. 30 (9:45 p.m.)

"Baghdad Hospital" is the story of Dr. Omer Salih Mahdi, who put himself and his colleagues at great risk to film inside Al-Yarmouk Hospital, whose emergency room is too dangerous for an American crew. With the documentary's HBO debut, Salih Mahdi reveals his identity to the world for the first time. Until now, he has remained anonymous to protect himself and his family. (Salih Mahdi's face is not revealed in the film and an actor has recorded his words. His family no longer resides in Iraq.)

Given permission by hospital authorities to use a hand-held camera inside the emergency room, Salih Mahdi reveals some of the horrific injuries sustained by Iraqi men, women and children while at the same time exposing the substandard conditions, low morale and physical danger that its doctors and nurses endure on a daily basis.

Civilians caught in crossfire

Like the American GIs in HBO's acclaimed 2006 documentary "Baghdad ER," many of the people hospitalized in this film are victims of gunfire or improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Here, however, the victims are Iraqi civilians caught in the crossfire of the ongoing sectarian violence between Iraqi Shiites, whose military forces control the area, and Sunni insurgents linked to Al-Qaeda.

Among the casualities seen in the graphic and often heartbreaking footage: a young woman who was engulfed in flames by a car bomb while on her way to buy bread; a 7-year-old boy injured while playing outside with several friends, who were killed; and a 6-year-old boy, wounded by the shrapnel in a bomb that killed his father and brother, who receives no anaesthetic because supplies have run out.

Dr. Ali Adbul Wahed, a surgeon and one of the few hospital staff members to allow his face and name to be used in the film, describes his experiences in the ER and on ambulance trips to pick up victims, saying, "Whoever is on duty, if they don't have to deal with an explosion or a shooting, we say that they're not really living the real Al-Yarmouk."

 The harrowing special received a 2007 International Emmy Award for Current Affairs.

Honing skills at Ball State

To help Salih Mahdi continue his award-winning filmmaking career, the Institute for International Education (IIE), which administers the Fulbright Scholarship program, placed him at Ball State, where he is pursuing an advanced degree in journalism.

The IIE chose Ball State because of the match between the university's programs and Salih Mahdi's course of study and career goals. Ball State's reputation for being innovative and progressive in the field of digital media also influenced IIE's decision.

"It's an honor to have Dr. Omer Salih Mahdi attending Ball State University," said university President Jo Ann M. Gora. "Increasingly, Ball State is building a reputation as having one of the nation's best film schools without a film school, and that is obviously resonating with prestigious programs such as the Fulbright Scholars program.

"We have built unequaled programs in journalism and telecommunications that have produced back-to-back Student Academy Awards — besting entries from traditional film powerhouses such as UCLA, USC and Columbia University," she added. "I'm confident that Dr. Salih Mahdi will find his Ball State experience will help him hone the skills he needs to further his career as an award-winning filmmaker."

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