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Un­der the cloak of a balmy night, the ar­moured black SUV hits 140km/h. It’s bolt­ing down Route Ir­ish, once known as the dead­li­est road in the world. The stoic driver floors it – fail­ing to ever fully stop at the var­i­ous se­cu­rity check­points. On the roof of the car, in plain sight, two flame-shaped ro­tat­ing cylin­ders block cell phone sig­nals, foil­ing the re­mote det­o­na­tion of any ex­plo­sives. In the front pas­sen­ger seat, a dap­per del­e­gate of the Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter jug­gles two phones, tex­ting, call­ing, Viber-ing and What­sapp-ing at a fran­tic pace. Doc­tor Munjed Al Muderis, the pi­o­neer­ing Iraqi-aus­tralian or­thopaedic surgeon, sits in the rear. Tonight he’s tak­ing in Baghdad, his home­town, for the first time in al­most two decades. “As the plane started de­scend­ing, all I could think was, ‘What have I done?’” con­fided Al Muderis to GQ, mo­ments after land­ing. It had taken a per­sonal in­vi­ta­tion from Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter, Haider al-abadi to con­vince him to re­turn. And now, he was ques­tion­ing his RSVP. Trav­el­ling at speed down Route Ir­ish means feel­ing every bump – every patched-over scar from an im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice (IED) or mor­tar. We’re rac­ing from Baghdad In­ter­na­tional Air­port, bound for the rel­a­tive safety of the Green Zone – Baghdad’s ad­min­is­tra­tive city-within-a-city. A few weeks ear­lier, this care­ful, chore­ographed rou­tine was used to carry Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull. Spend long enough with Al Muderis and you’re bound to en­counter his the­ory on the Wheel of For­tune – a per­sonal metaphor for the cycli­cal rhythm of life’s ups and downs. As he de­scended a pri­vate stair­case off a plane and into an ar­moured Mercedes, it was clear that his for­tune has un­de­ni­ably swung back to the top. Al-abadi has in­vited Al Muderis to visit from his har­bour­side home in Sydney – a city in which he’s pi­o­neered the rev­o­lu­tion­ary os­seoin­te­gra­tion surgery, a pro­ce­dure that es­chews a cen­turies-old socket sys­tem, fus­ing bone to ti­ta­nium, al­low­ing pa­tients to use limbs once thought lost. Al-abadi, over­see­ing a re­lent­less bat­tle with IS, has an army rank full of sol­diers whose limbs have been re­moved by IEDS. Long-es­tranged from his home coun­try, Al Muderis could be the key to get­ting these sol­diers back into the field. If you’d asked the 45-year-old surgeon just a year ago, he’d have told you that his place in Iraq is some­thing he left for dead, decades ear­lier. Aus­tralia, hap­pily, is home now. Baghdad, the place of what was a charmed child­hood, had be­come the stage of night­mares. The last time he’d been here, his for­tunes were dimmed – al­most per­ma­nently. In fact, a few weeks be­fore head­ing back, he’d joked that the Iraqi in­vi­ta­tion was per­haps a rouse – that he’d be tricked into re­turn­ing, then killed. But that risk has been taken – Al Muderis returned to rec­on­cile his life, past and present. A thou­sand times over, this could have been the story of a man de­hu­man­ised to the point of rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion, or the story of another unas­sim­i­lated refugee liv­ing in help­less­ness. In­stead, Al Muderis’ story is a re­minder, that a man can al­ways start – and restart – again. Al Muderis eas­ily ad­mits that he was born with a sil­ver spoon in his mouth. In re­al­ity, it may have been gilded. His is a fam­ily tree stuffed with cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence – one that can al­legedly be traced back to the Prophet Muham­mad, and one that, to this day, com­mands def­er­ence. He grew up with a nanny and a house­keeper. A chauf­feur drove him to his school. Such was the stand­ing of Al Muderis’ ed­u­ca­tion that Sad­dam Hus­sein’s own sons, Uday and Qusay, attended his high school – the lat­ter at the same time as Al Muderis. He re­calls their ob­nox­ious and vi­o­lent be­hav­iour, and how they’d often ar­rive for school in a new Mercedes, or on quad bikes. While har­bour­ing a keen in­ter­est in ro­botic limbs – driven by watch­ing The Ter­mi­na­tor at 12 – the heavy bur­den of fam­ily legacy saw Al Muderis go on to do a de­gree in medicine. His time at university was con­tin­u­ally in­ter­rupted as the First Gulf War broke out in 1990. US forces were pound­ing the Hus­sein regime, which would even­tu­ally be forced to re­treat from Kuwait. Like most Iraqis, Al Muderis didn’t con­sider the war rea­son enough for life to grind to a halt. He fin­ished his de­gree and with the al­lure of the Ter­mi­na­tor car­ry­ing through to adult­hood – he de­cided, early on, to spe­cialise in or­thopaedics. It was in 1999, as a first-year med­i­cal res­i­dent, that the tra­jec­tory of his life for­ever shifted. Un­der the glow­ing flu­o­res­cent lights of Sad­dam Hus­sein Med­i­cal Centre in Baghdad, Mil­i­tary Po­lice marched a queue of army de­sert­ers into a dingy op­er­at­ing the­atre where Al Muderis and his peers were prep­ping for the day. Their orders were concise – by de­cree ‘115/1994’ of the con­sti­tu­tion, the doctors were to amputate the ears of each deserter. The lead surgeon, cit­ing the Hip­po­cratic Oath, re­fused. He was taken to the hospi­tal’s park­ing lot, briefly in­ter­ro­gated and shot dead in full view of his col­leagues. “If any­one shares his view, step for­ward,” stated a brutish of­fi­cer. “Oth­er­wise, carry on.”

Al Muderis, in shock, could cal­cu­late only one path to es­cape – hid­ing in the women’s chang­ing room. He qui­etly slunk out of the op­er­at­ing the­atre and locked him­self into a cu­bi­cle. Hunched over porce­lain, lis­ten­ing to each pass­ing voice and foot­step with dread, Al Muderis’ treach­er­ous jour­ney had be­gun. Hours later, sev­eral peo­ple en­tered the chang­ing room. Al Muderis’ chest tight­ened. But the steps be­longed to nurses. The bloody deed had been com­pleted – work fin­ished for the day. As hor­ri­fy­ing as it was, sit­ting on that toi­let was one of the last mo­ments of re­prieve Al Muderis would have for more than a year. The bud­ding surgeon’s fam­ily smug­gled him out of the coun­try and into Jor­dan. Al Muderis crossed the bor­der in a car, with around US$20,000 strapped to his gut – a part­ing gift from his dev­as­tated mother. Even­tu­ally, he fled to In­done­sia, where he handed over his pass­port and paid a peo­ple smug­gler for a spot on a small fish­ing boat bound for Aus­tralia. The then-27-year-old survived a har­row­ing 36-hour jour­ney, do­ing his best to care for preg­nant and el­derly pas­sen­gers, all sar­dined in a mass of hu­man­ity that was soon stained by urine and vomit.

The ship’s cap­tain had de­serted them, only a few hours into the jour­ney – and it was a mar­vel they didn’t meet the same mor­tal fate that so many refugee-filled boats bound for Aus­tralia would. Even­tu­ally dock­ing on Christ­mas Is­land, Al Muderis was vac­u­umed into Aus­tralia’s refugee sys­tem. Curtin Detention Centre, in Western Aus­tralia’s re­mote, arid Kim­ber­ley re­gion, would be his home for the in­def­i­nite fu­ture. There, his name was re­placed by a num­ber – 982. It would be nearly a year un­til he was again hu­man­ised. Al Muderis re­calls a visit from a sup­pos­edly high-rank­ing of­fi­cial of Aus­tralia’s De­part­ment of Im­mi­gra­tion that oc­curred shortly after his ar­rival at Curtin. “You are not wel­come here. The Aus­tralian peo­ple do not want you here. You will be de­tained here in­def­i­nitely,” barked the woman. “How­ever, if you choose to go back to your home­land, we can help fa­cil­i­tate your re­turn.” He tells sto­ries of squalid con­di­tions, emo­tional and racial abuse, and un­speak­able cru­elty to­wards chil­dren. At one point, col­lab­o­rat­ing with an in­trepid male nurse, Al Muderis used a dis­pos­able cam­era to snap the hor­rid re­al­ity of the detention centre. The nurse mailed the pho­tos to all ma­jor Aus­tralian news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and tele­vi­sion sta­tions. No one ran the story. At one point dur­ing detention, Al Muderis came face-to-face with Aus­tralia’s then-im­mi­gra­tion Min­is­ter, Philip Rud­dock – a man he’s la­belled “as cold as an Antarc­tic win­ter”. On rais­ing the issue of child abuse, ask­ing why the centre’s chil­dren couldn’t be re­leased into the com­mu­nity to fos­ter fam­i­lies, he re­calls Rud­dock’s re­sponse: “You broke the law to come here. If we re­lease the chil­dren, it’ll be re­ward­ing them for break­ing the law.” (Years later, Rud­dock would de­scribe the Curtin Detention Centre as Aus­tralia’s “most prim­i­tive”.) Al Muderis’ 10 months in Curtin was punc­tu­ated by nights in soli­tary con­fine­ment and a short stint in the max­i­mum se­cu­rity sec­tion of Broome Jail for the sup­posed in­cite­ment of un­rest within the Centre. Tellingly, Al Muderis found the lat­ter a wel­come respite from Curtin – for one, he was re­ferred to by name. “I’ll tell you what, the prison sys­tem in Aus­tralia is bril­liant,” he says. “I strongly rec­om­mend that.” He was even­tu­ally cleared of all charges. In Au­gust of 2000, with the Sydney Olympics less than a month away, Al Muderis was dumped, un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously, at a dusty bus stop near Curtin. His asy­lum had been granted – he was free. With lit­tle over three grand left over from his mother’s part­ing gift, he could sud­denly go wher­ever he wanted. Yet he didn’t go ter­ri­bly far, hop­ping on a bus to Broome and then me­an­der­ing along WA’S mes­meris­ing, coral-dot­ted north­ern coast­line. He thought it was beau­ti­ful.

The first time GQ met Al Muderis, he was steal­ing the show at a pri­vate event in Mel­bourne. To be clear – Aus­tralians fawn over ath­letes more than any other coun­try. Yet, on a panel com­prised of world cham­pion surfer Mick Fan­ning and beloved Mel­bourne Vic­tory soc­cer cap­tain Carl Va­leri, it was Al Muderis who won the room’s hearts. The crowd lurched from amuse­ment (on learn­ing of his daily two-litre Coke habit) to solem­nity (on re­count­ing his jour­ney to Aus­tralia) to ad­mi­ra­tion (on out­lin­ing the costs of his am­bi­tious ca­reer). His hum­ble, self-ef­fac­ing per­sona feels tai­lor-made for Aus­tralia – a coun­try whose in­tol­er­ance of ego is leg­endary. On ar­rival to­day in Baghdad, Al Muderis’ sil­ver tongue has de­serted him. Not trust­ing his Ara­bic, he leans back on English. “I was work­ing with the Poms...” he says jok­ingly to a room full of hospi­tal ad­min­is­tra­tors.

“Poms?” re­sponds a hospi­tal di­rec­tor. “You know, Poms, they’re the Bri­tish. Amer­i­cans are Yanks. We have words for all of these in Aus­tralia. Le­banese are ‘Leb­bos’. Greeks are ‘Wogs’. Iraqis are ‘Sand Nig­gers’.” The point fails to hit in this room, as it would in Aus­tralia, where those with dual cul­tural iden­ti­ties often use such would-be dis­parag­ing nomen­cla­tures as a sort of coat of ar­mour. Al Muderis learnt this early on. Mocked and be­lit­tled by his new­found or­thopaedic peers, often called a ter­ror­ist or told to go back to Curtin, he re­alised that, in Aus­tralia, own­ing a la­bel goes a long way. We’re in­side the Green Zone, perched near the Repub­li­can Palace and an ar­ray of for­eign em­bassies. Ibn Sina, the hospi­tal we’re vis­it­ing is one of – if not the – best gov­ern­ment hospi­tal in the coun­try, a place that gained cer­tain recog­ni­tion through the HBO doc­u­men­tary, Baghdad ER. Here, the vinyl floors are peel­ing, walls are cracked, and a cock­roach can be seen be­neath the desk in Al Muderis’ makeshift con­sult­ing room. “This is much bet­ter than I thought it would be,” he of­fers. Some 200 sol­diers and of­fi­cers have been sum­moned, to be triaged by Al Muderis over two days. Each has lost a limb, most from di­rect bat­tle with IS forces. For the Iraqi gov­ern­ment, the hope is that Al Muderis can re­turn in a few months and get these men back on their feet. Ideally, back into bat­tle. This visit marks the first step in the process – triag­ing, de­ter­min­ing pa­tient suit­abil­ity and as­sess­ing what he’ll need go­ing for­ward. The first chal­lenge of the ex­er­cise quickly rears its head – that is, most of these men smoke. A lot. Like, three packs a day. Al Muderis is hor­ri­fied. None of them could be op­er­ated on without a high risk of in­fec­tion – too many Mal­boros prompt­ing poorer blood cir­cu­la­tion, and from that comes a less­ened abil­ity to re­cover from a pro­ce­dure. Al Muderis’ os­seoin­te­gra­tion pro­ce­dure – fus­ing a proth­e­sis di­rectly into bone, ad­vanc­ing the old tech­nique of fit­ting it over a stump – is marked by its de­par­ture from con­ven­tion. He stum­bled across it dur­ing a pe­riod of re­search in 2008. With its gen­e­sis in tooth im­plants, the tech­nique has gone on to for­ever ame­lio­rate med­i­cal treat­ment. To­day, only a hand­ful of global sur­geons con­duct such pro­ce­dures, in part be­cause of the risk of in­fec­tion. Al Muderis re­fuses to op­er­ate on any pa­tient who’s smoked a cigarette within 90 days of surgery. “In­shal­lah,” says a para­mil­i­tary of­fi­cer, miss­ing a leg, on be­ing told to cease smok­ing im­me­di­ately. “God has noth­ing to do with it!” re­sponds Al Muderis in Ara­bic. “Lis­ten,” he adds, soft­en­ing his tone, ‘God will help the man who helps him­self’.” After be­ing with Al Muderis for a few days it be­comes clear that he’s part of a long line of sec­u­lar Iraqis for whom re­li­gion is a glib punch­ing bag. Each morn­ing in his Sydney surgery, he be­gins pro­ceed­ings by pro­claim­ing, in Ara­bic, laeanakum Al­lah (God curse you all). It’s his way of re­mov­ing fate, and God, from medicine, which he be­lieves comes down en­tirely to skill. Out­side the makeshift of­fice, the in­pa­tient room be­gins to over­flow with in­jured men and women – all miss­ing limbs. They wear long faces and often, make-do pros­thet­ics. The masses, to Al Muderis’ de­jec­tion, spill out­side into an im­pro­vised smok­ing area. He tends to each pa­tient me­thod­i­cally – usu­ally work­ing in a joke. “Smoker?” he opens to a po­lice of­fer whose leg has been am­pu­tated above the knee. “No, I don’t like it,” shrugs the of­fi­cer. “Are you sure you’re Iraqi? Do you even like tea?” Another para­mil­i­tary of­fi­cer re­sponds to the query with another to­kenis­tic, “In­shal­lah”. “God? God did this to you?” says Al Muderis, only half jok­ing. “No, it was Satan.” “It was a re­li­gious fa­natic...” says Al Muderis, as the room full of res­i­dents and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials be­gins to quiet. “...I bet­ter shut up be­fore you guys take me and hang me too.” The of­fice bursts with laugh­ter. One man, still in ev­i­dent trauma, re­counts the story of run­ning to­wards an IS car bomb­ing to steal away a young child from harm. As the pair sprinted from the scene, a second ex­plo­sion det­o­nated. The child, clasped in the of­fi­cer’s arms, acted as a shield from the mass of pen­e­tra­tive shrap­nel. The child’s body was whisked away in the force of the vi­o­lence. Only a small head re­mained, cra­dled in the of­fi­cer’s hands. The sol­dier lost an arm. He demon­strates the way he was hold­ing the child, hug­ging his one-and-a-half arms to his chest. The irony that, whether earnestly or face­tiously, large swathes of the West would re­flex­ively as­sess these pa­tients as ‘ter­ror­ists’ is not lost on the for­eign­ers in the room. The In­sti­tute of Eco­nomics & Peace found that, in 2016, Iraqis con­tin­ued to suf­fer the world’s great­est im­pact from ter­ror­ism – an im­pact score of 9.96 out of 10. (Aus­tralia and the US ranked num­ber 59 and 36 in the world, re­spec­tively – with im­pact scores of 2.74 and 4.88.) The data makes clearer what’s an ini­tially murky pic­ture – that the peo­ple of Iraq, in­deed the coun­try itself, are the world’s great­est vic­tims of ter­ror. The day yawns into a steady rhythm of hob­bling, down­cast pa­tients feed­ing in from three dif­fer­ent wait­ing rooms. Each is x-rayed by staff, then care­fully fed into a data­base by Al Muderis’ as­sis­tants. The x-rays will act as an ever-grow­ing chronicle of lives al­tered and hor­rors seen. Over and over, the room hosts sto­ries of war, of snipers, of sui­cide bombers, of in­nu­mer­able IEDS and RPGS. As the day wears on, Al Muderis slowly re­gresses into the Iraqi man­ner­isms – and per­haps the iden­tity – he was cer­tain were buried. He os­cil­lates be­tween Ara­bic and English, trad­ing thoughts in rapid-fire Ara­bic, oc­ca­sion­ally punc­tu­at­ing with a blunt, “Re­ally?! That’s stupid.” Watch him dur­ing his 15-hour day at the hospi­tal, and he’ll never sit. He never so much as leans against a desk. “I’m not tired,” he of­fers. “I just feel sorry for these peo­ple. There’s so many of them.” “It’s a shame there’s only one Munjed,” says a doc­tor, after the 22nd pa­tient is seen. The steady work is only in­ter­rupted by an ap­point­ment. If it were any­where but the Repub­li­can Palace, you get the feel­ing Al Muderis would skip it.



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