Ahmed Hamza - Iraqi paediatrician learning modern heart defect diagnosis

Dr Ahmed Hamza

Rob Cameron's guest in this week's One on One is Dr Ahmed Hamza, a 37-year-old paediatrician from the Iraqi city of Basra. He recently left his troubled homeland and his wife and two children for three months' training at Prague's Motol hospital, in a programme financed by the Czech government. Dr Ahmed and a colleague from Basra are learning about the use of ultra-sound technology in diagnosing heart defects in children, their chosen speciality. Rob went to Motol to meet Dr Ahmed, and began by asking him for his memories of life under Saddam Hussein.

"The period of Saddam Hussein was the worst period in our lives, in the life of any Iraqi. I'm not political, but Saddam Hussein harmed all the Iraqi peoples. No-one is excluded from this. Everyone has memories. For example, my brother was a prisoner-of-war in Iran, and many of my cousins were killed in war, in the first war with Iran, in the Gulf war, in the later war. All of these memories are bad memories of Saddam."

What was it like for a doctor, a paediatrician like yourself, working in Basra under Saddam?

"Working as a doctor in the period of Saddam Hussein was hopeless. We worked just to save the lives of the people, nothing more. We gained nothing as a doctor from Saddam Hussein. I will give you an example. The salary of each doctor in that period was about 2-3 dollars per month. This is a very small amount. Now, salaries have become better. Another thing is the availability of drugs. Because of the economic sanctions in that period, very few drugs arrived in our hospitals. And not just the amount, but the quality. They were very cheap and ineffective. There were no facilities. All of our instruments were old. For example the X-ray machine in my hospital I think is from 1960, and we're still using it now. It's very old."

But surely conditions for doctors and nurses in Iraq have got worse now, with the occupation, the insurgency, the number of injuries?

"Yes, it is more difficult, of course. It is a very difficult job in Basra. We face many problems, social problems, economic problems. There is no peace to go from our homes to the hospitals. In Basra it is less common for bombs to go off, but they go off sometimes."

So if you compare the two - life as a doctor before under Saddam, and life as a doctor now, which would you choose?

"I'd choose now of course! It is worse, but I'd choose now because Saddam is gone."

So for you the most important thing is that Saddam has gone.

"Yes, of course, of course. This is the most important thing in our life."

Is it difficult being here in Prague? Do you miss Iraq?

"Yeah, I miss it strongly, especially Basra and my family. The living conditions here are nice, nice people, very kind. But something is strange for us. We're gradually acclimatising to life here."

How do you keep in touch with your family?

"I call them by mobile, and they call me by mobile. This is the only way we can call our families. There's no Internet connection here, and no TV to see the world in Iraq."

Abbas Asad and his father
So it's difficult for you to keep up with what's happening in Iraq.

"Yes. Our families call us daily and they inform us about what's happening in Iraq."

And I suppose the news you're getting from Iraq must make you quite nervous, quite anxious about the safety of your family and friends in Basra, as things appear to be getting worse.

"Yes, of course. But nowadays, for about the last ten days, the conditions in Iraq may be settling down."

What do you hope to learn from your training here at Prague's Motol hospital?

Motol hospital
"I hope to learn many things about echocardiography..."

...Can you explain what echocardiography is exactly?

"Yes. Echocardiography is examining the heart with an ultrasound instrument to see the chambers of the heart, and the valves, and congenital defects - holes in the heart - all of these we can see in echocardiography. No paediatrician in Iraq, in Basra, is learning about this technology, and I hope we can use this knowledge to assist children with congenital heart disease, to diagnose their problems."

Iraq,  photo: CTK
So your training will help you diagnose Iraqi children who have heart defects.

"Yes, that's what I mean."

Many people in Iraq had very high expectations when Saddam was removed. The last two years have been anything but hopeful. The situation now looks pretty bleak. Are you still hopeful for the future?

"I think so, but in several years, not now. It will take many years to become better. The political ideas, the elections rules, what we call the parliament, all of these can save the situation there, the economic situation and political situation, and no-one will become like Saddam. We don't want another Saddam."

And the Americans, when should they leave Iraq?

"I think they should leave as soon as possible. When the conditions settle in Iraq, they must leave. They must not go one day after that."