Iraq's tuk-tuk drivers are the ambulances of the nation

Mass protests against the Iraqi government's failure to provide basic services, create jobs and stamp out corruption broke out in Baghdad on 1 October, before spreading to cities in the south of the country. The authorities’ violent response has included the use of live ammunition, tear gas and stun grenades. As a result, hospitals across Baghdad were filled with wounded and injured protesters.

MSF teams visited hospitals and provided donations of emergency medical supplies where needed and expanded the capacity of the Baghdad Medical Rehabilitation Centre (BMRC) in order to be able to offer early rehabilitation and post-operative care to a larger number of patients in need.

Among those referred to the BMRC in recent weeks is 20-year-old Ali Salim, a tuk-tuk driver who spent his days ferrying wounded people to hospitals before he ended up in a hospital bed himself.

“From 1 October, they started firing at people and as a tuk-tuk driver, or ‘the ambulance of the nation’ as people call us, I started evacuating wounded people. I have seen some injuries that really affected me, I couldn’t just go back home, put my head on a pillow and fall asleep. Some get hit by “smokers” [Iraqi slang for tear gas canisters] in the head, others in the leg – my convictions didn’t allow me to leave,” he says.

Ali was hit in the leg by a stun grenade and was taken to hospital for surgery. He was told he needed to stay for two weeks to properly recover but he was unable to rest as he saw the influx of wounded arriving in the hospital alongside him.

“I thought I would be able to gather my strength, stand up and drive my tuk-tuk to save more people,” he says.

He discharged himself, against medical advice, after just two days.

Ali was soon back at Tahrir ferrying wounded people from al-Jumhouriyah Bridge, which runs over the Tigris river linking the main square to the Green Zone where government buildings and foreign embassies are located.

“When we drove onto the bridge, we turned off our headlights, but they aimed towards us and fired. When they shot, I moved my head sideways as the tear gas and stun grenades or bullets penetrated the windshield – it was like watching a Bollywood film,” Ali says, adding that he never thought he would still be alive by now.

The worst was yet to come for Ali. On 7 November, while he was posing for journalists with his heavily damaged tuk-tuk, a medical volunteer asked to be taken to al-Shuhada Bridge, where there were reports of the use of live ammunition.

Once on the scene, Ali and the medic found three injured people. The medic asked for permission from security forces to aid those injured, raising his hands over his head. They refused.

“He looked at me, smiled and told me: ‘Son, wait here,’” Ali says, poignantly describing the last words uttered by the medic. He was shot in the chest almost immediately as he ran to assist the wounded.

Appalled by what he had just witnessed, Ali rushed to collect the medic and the other wounded people. But just as he was about to drive out to safety, his eyes caught sight of another injured man.

“He was an old man, I was truly devastated,” he remembers. As he approached the man, a security member shouted for Ali to go back. But he refused and was shot from point-blank range in the thigh.

Ali was taken to hospital for surgery and his tuk-tuk was never seen again.