He may well be the last leper alive in Iraq. Ghazai Nasser-Dhahi doesn’t know exactly how old he is – he has no birth certificate but was born in the southern city of Nasiriyah – but he has a long memory and can tell you the history of Iraq’s leprosy colony, one of the oldest in the Middle East.
By Mahdi Al-Saadi in Nasiriyah
“I got ill in the mid-60s and have lived in a leper colony ever since,” the old man told Al Menasa. The first one he went to was an infamous one in Amarah. It had been built in 1920 to isolate the lepers.
Leprosy is caused by a type of bacteria, the mycobacterium leprae, which doctors say is transmitted through droplets from the mouth and nose, if another person comes into close contact with a sufferer. Today, it is possible to treat leprosy with a range of drugs but for a long time, the only cure was to isolate those who caught the disease.
“Leprosy causes the erosion of body parts such as the nose and the limbs due to its effect on the ends of the nerves,” explains Radi al-Saadi, a skin doctor in Amara. “The affected people were usually isolated to prevent transmission of the disease, when there was no treatment.”
The World Health Organisation writes that, the “elimination of leprosy as public health problem – defined as a registered prevalence of less than one case per 10 000 population -was achieved globally in 2000”.
Nasser-Dhahi says he has lived through a lot and likely escaped death several times. When the people of Amarah rose up against former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, in the 1990s, the city was attacked by government soldiers. “There were about 20 of us, elderly and blind, and the people of the city smuggled us out of the colony to save us,” the old man recalls. “I don’t know what happened to the friends that were left behind in the colony.”
Nasser-Dhahi has been moved around several times. At one stage, he ended up in Basra but the provincial health authorities sent the lepers back to Amarah because, they said, they had no facilities there to help them. At first, the patients lived in caravans on the outskirts of Amarah and then later in a house built near a military barracks.
In 2003, Nasser-Dhahi says the lepers were in danger again as US and coalition forces bombed the nearby army barracks.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the lepers were treated by Japanese welfare organisations. However by then, Nasser-Dhahi and most of his fellow lepers were old and frail and eventually they have died, one by one, until now only Nasser-Dhahi remains.
He is left alone in the house he has lived in for years, with only his memories of trying to survive and the love and friendship of his fellow lepers, to keep him company.