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Life in Baghdad: A healer's story

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  • Getting to work in Baghdad a risky ordeal daily
  • Government-owned minibuses often targeted by insurgents
  • Doctor had to enter through morgue, start workday by confronting corpses
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The author of this article is earning a master's degree in public health in the United States. She has asked to remain anonymous for fear her family might be targeted.

Getting to work at the Iraq Health Ministry in Baghdad amounted to risking death daily, writes an Iraqi doctor.

(CNN) -- After earning my medical degree, I began working for the Ministry of Health in Baghdad, a red-brown, 11-story building in the Russafa district. My responsibilities there were similar to doctors working at health departments in other countries: immunization programs, media campaigns, workshops and the like.

Getting to work was another story. During "normal" times, the trip across the Tigris (from al-Karkh) to the ministry would take 25 minutes. When I started at the ministry in February 2005, times were anything but normal.

My morning routine involved walking to a nearby bus station, where I would wait for a ministry minibus to take me to work. Even though I'm an adult, my mother would often accompany me to make sure I was securely in the vehicle. No one felt safe.

Many of the minibuses and cars on Baghdad's streets are owned by various governmental ministries and agencies. As such, they were increasingly targeted by brutal insurgents who wanted to create fear, insecurity and send a threatening message to the post-Saddam Hussein government. We would frequently hear the horror stories about government employees being kidnapped, shot or injured. I felt so fragile, vulnerable. Just one incident away from something tragic. Would my vehicle be targeted today? Would I arrive to work and then back home safely? Would this be the last day of my life?

Rescuing Youssif
Watch a CNN exclusive "Impact Your World -- Rescuing Youssif" about an Iraqi boy's ordeal
Dec. 24 at 10 p.m. ET; Dec. 25 at 4 p.m. ET

Compounding the problem were the many closed roads and checkpoints, slowing traffic to a crawl. The danger of being stuck in traffic was not primarily the inhalation of all the heavy gray fumes and pollutants surrounding us. Much more frightening were the crowded areas and traffic jams that were often prized targets for car bombs and suicide bombers. I would look at every stopped car with gut-tightening suspicion -- will it explode at any second? It did not help to also be hearing gunfire and feeling the vibrations of big explosions in the area or off in the distance.

The risk was especially high when we passed through the many old alleyways leading to the ministry's parking garage. One hot summer morning, minutes after we drove the narrow bumpy road to the ministry, a parked car packed with dynamite exploded. We had just passed that car, through that exact alley, five minutes earlier. I heard the piercing rumble. I felt it deep inside. I ran to my office window and watched the rolling black smoke, feeling the desperate misery that seemed to be all around, closing in on us. At that moment all I knew was numbness, emptiness.

Once the initial shock subsided, I began to ponder the "what-ifs." What if, due to clogged traffic, we had been passing the point of explosion five minutes later? What if I had lost an arm or leg, and was about to begin a long period of pain and suffering in some hospital bed? What if I had died in the blast (as others did that day) and my mother and family were now looking for the pieces of my body? At times like that, my mind would be exploding with many scary, disturbing thoughts.

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Car bombs were not the only challenges in my day. After the long, scary, worrisome ride to work, we were required to enter the ministry through the parking garage. (This was for security purposes.) And from this location, the only way to get to the office area was to pass through the large central morgue. Each morning as I arrived for work, I would have to walk past several trucks filled with dead bodies, flesh, blood -- pieces of what used to be human beings. People who had been killed during the violence of the night.

Accompanying the body-filled trucks were dozens of people waiting to identify or receive their dead relatives. Women slapping faces, wailing, weeping for lost sons or husbands.

Once past the first concrete wall and past the morgue door I would see the rows of wooden coffins lined up on the cold cement floor. Yet finding a way to pass through the many coffins and grieving people was not the worst part. It was the smell of dead bodies that was unbearable. The odor was everywhere -- I would rush to get inside the building as quickly as possible, the only attempt at escape from the sounds and smells. It was worse during summer. This was the way I started work every day.

Yet, once there, we needed to pretend that life was OK, and focus on our jobs. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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