BACK TO دادغب
MUNJED AL MUDERIS ESCAPED A DICTATOR’S CLUTCHES, SURVIVED HELL IN AN AUSTRALIAN DETENTION CENTRE AND BUILT A CHARMED, SUCCESSFUL HARBOURSIDE LIFE IN SYDNEY. THEN, IRAQ CALLED. WE TRAVEL WITH THE RENOWNED SURGEON – TO DOCUMENT HIS RETURN TO BAGHDAD, THE CITY HE WAS FORCED TO FLEE.
THEIR ORDERS WERE CONCISE... THE DOCTORS WERE TO AMPUTATE THE EARS OF EACH DESERTER.
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.
“GOD? GOD DID THIS TO YOU?” SAYS AL MUDERIS ONLY HALF JOKING. “NO, IT WAS SATAN.”
AL MUDERIS STEPS FROM THE PLANE; SNAPSHOTS OF HIS TIME ON THE GROUND, WORKING WITH WOUNDED IRAQI SOLDIERS.