In the early hours of Monday morning, the last fifty personnel from the Czech military field hospital in the Iraqi city of Basra arrived in Prague - putting an end to the hospital's nine-month mission in the war-torn country. The Czech government decided to terminate its mission last month despite protests from many quarters including the Czech ambassador to Kuwait, who was later sacked over the remarks. The withrawal of the field hospital, however, isn't the end of Czech military involvement in Iraq.
Since April, Czech military doctors performed almost 250 operations, treating nearly 10,000 Iraqi civilians and 1,300 soldiers. According to the hospital's commander Premysl Skacha, the healthcare situation in Iraq is practically the same as when the hospital first started. Doctor Jiri Gai, who served in Basra for four months, shares this view.
"The hospital will surely be missed. In terms of expertise, equipment or range of services and operations. I would say that those who will miss it the most are the poor and the disadvantaged who can't afford to pay for proper medical care."
Defence Minister Miroslav Kostelka, however, says the situation in Iraq has much improved over the last nine months. He says the Czech hospital has fulfilled its task.
"In the first stage of the hospital's mission, the healthcare system in Iraq was in chaos. Since then a lot has changed. We established an intensive care unit there, there are six hospitals, a teaching hospital and a faculty - all doing their job well."
Regardless of how they may feel about the government's decision to withdraw the military hospital from Iraq, the doctors and other personnel welcome the timing of their return. Commander Premysl Skacha.
"We are all happy to be home, especially now before Christmas. I think we did a good job. Right now, we'll all undergo medical checkups in the army's quarantine centre and then, hopefully, most of us will have a quiet time with our families until the end of the year. We'll celebrate Christmas, re-acclimatise, and as of New Year it's back to work."
Christmas will certainly not be a time of rest for the 80 military police who have replaced the medical contingent in Basra. Their task will be to help train the local police, maintain order and discipline, investigate offences and crimes against humanity. The Czech military police unit will also assist in searching for weapons, explosives and drugs, but also guard police buildings and escort convoys - both very frequent targets of armed attacks in Iraq.
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