Children of war: Baghdad stories

After the Gulf war, Iraqi children were described as `one of the most traumatised child populations on earth'. Today, still in the shadow of the UN embargo, they hope only for a life more ordinary.
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
The United Nations embargo on Iraq was implemented on Hiroshima Day 1990 as an alternative to war, a tool to force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. The Gulf war followed, reducing Iraq to "a pre-industrial age for a considerable time to come" - and the embargo remained in place, with conditions for its lifting quickly becoming the war of the moving goalposts. I first visited Iraq in early '92, and witnessed this unique destruction - and what experts specialising in the effects upon children in war zones have diagnosed "one of the most traumatised child populations on earth". With even toys, exercise books, pencils and ping-pong balls among the endless list of items vetoed, children have no childhood, no escape from their troubles, or from the memories of bombings.

Along with the embargo, stratospheric inflation has robbed Iraqi youth of the joys and discoveries of adolescence, the kind of little luxuries that young people in Britain take for granted - items vetoed include lipstick, deodorant, sanitary towels, magazines. Education, too, has suffered: the teachers able to leave the country do so, and many students give up studying because they cannot afford the books and stationery or transport to college. Cancer haunts Iraq: incidence of the disease has risen sixfold since the Gulf war, an escalation which has been linked to the depleted uranium weapons used primarily by the United States and Britain, which left a residue of radioactive dust throughout the country.

Only history will judge us, "the people of the United Nations", for targeting the most helpless, in the guise of affecting the powerful. What follows are the voices of just a few of the young men and women who have grown up in the shadow of the embargo.

One-third of Iraq's population is under 15.

Hanin, 23 (left) Hanin lives with her sons, Heider, five, and Haitham, three, and two-month-old baby daughter, Tiri - one of 10 families holed up in 10 rooms in an ancient, derelict building in the centre of Baghdad, reached via a maze of narrow alleys. Children scamper through the sewage which bubbles to the surface, a consequence of the 1991 bomb damage. Spare parts for repairs of both sewage and water systems have been vetoed by the UN Sanctions Committee.

In Hanin's room, sacks labelled "World Food Programme Wheat Flour, Gift of Switzerland", have been carefully tacked to cover the gaping holes in the wall. Her husband, Sabah, is in the army, and returns home infrequently, since his monthly salary does not even cover his fares to and from his unit. "There used to be army buses to transport personnel, but now there are no spare parts, so he is away so much and we miss each other. He has seen Tiri only once. I fear the baby will get sick; how will I find medicine, how will I buy it?" She hugs Tiri to her. "I feel like all Iraq's women," she confesses, "I am afraid, and afraid that the agreement with Mr Annan will not work." She prays for "the lifting of the embargo, and peace". When asked if she has a dream, she replies without hesitation, "That we live normally, that life is like before the embargo - and that we have enough milk for our children."

Inas, 22 (left) Inas has inherited her indomitable spirit from her mother, the first blind woman graduate in Iraq. For Inas, completing her studies is almost as challenging as it was for her mother. Now in the fourth, final year of biochemistry, she is uncertain as to how to finance the next two years of specialist studies she had hoped to complete, or, failing that, to finance the transport to any teaching job she might find, from her home in a Baghdad suburb. She cannot move. Her mother, independent though she is, has suffered a recurrence of cancer and is in no state to live alone.

"Although my grades are excellent, I worry they are not up to an international standard. We have minimal laboratory equipment now, and for one course we had only two reference books - both out of date. We had to share them between 35 of us. Those who could afford to, photocopied them; those of us who could not, copied them by hand. In the first year we all had our own equipment, but as time went on and the equipment broke down and materials were less available, it became harder and harder. Some students bribe the librarian to keep books for them; others just give up and drop out.

"I long for a social life and my own room. My social life is restricted to walking distance, and although we have a big house we have turned the upstairs into a flat, so we have only two bedrooms between my brother, mother and me. The flat just supports us." In her spare time Inas makes costume jewellery from buttons and the semi-precious stones abundant in Iraq. "But no one can afford to buy it."

Her greatest fear? "That I will remain at home, stuck in limbo." She has no dreams. "Our dreams are damned."

Sa'ad, 23 (below left) The home Sa'ad shares with his mother, a painter and batik artist, and his father, an architect, is vibrant with colour, a seductive refuge from the harshness of life in Iraq. Watercolours hang on the walls. One, Fruit of Life, is by Suad Al Attar, sister of Leila Al Attar, a renowned Middle East artist who was killed when an American cruise missile destroyed homes in Baghdad's residential Al Mansour district on 27 June 1993. Al Attar's daughter remains paralysed from the attack. Both sisters were close friends of Sa'ad's mother.

Sa'ad combines his work as a presenter on the daily radio show Voice of Youth with his interior design studies. "I have heard about Apple Macs for design but we have none. Can I say I am a designer? I have only my pen and brush, I don't know ideas and trends from other countries - and when I finish my studies I have to go into the army for 18 months. I can pay my way out after three months, for one million dinars.

"I remember when I was six, being at Harrods in London, playing in Hyde Park... We went to Italy and Spain. If there was no embargo, I could maybe finish my studies in another country, in New York, Washington, London, Paris, but I am frightened of the US, and of drugs, of Aids...

"I cannot think ahead because maybe there will be war, maybe not war; maybe computers, maybe not computers. I cannot make plans for my future when maybe I am going to die. My generation all thinks like this. I go out, make friends, have a social life, yet I cannot think ahead. The young do not plan, they live day to day. If I marry and have children, how do I look after them, their food, care, medication?"

Recently, Sa'ad interviewed a visitor to Iraq on radio. His programme format includes asking for a record and dedication at the end. "She asked for Stevie Wonder's `I Just Called To Say I Love You' - and she dedicated it to the people, but especially the children of Iraq. I will never forget that. We are so isolated."

Nidar, 21 (right) Nidar is visiting her friend Hanin. Her life in recent years has been a catalogue of tragedies. Her first baby died of septicaemia at just 18 days. That was two years ago. "He needed a blood transfusion. There were not the facilities. He needed medicines. They were not there. And perhaps it was my fault ... we had little money and I had not eaten properly in my pregnancy." Now she clutches five-month-old Hassan to her. "My brother's baby is two. He is sick, he does not eat, I am afraid for him. My father died because he needed surgery which could not be done and medicine we could not find. I am so afraid of the embargo continuing. So many have died, and I am afraid of the war happening again. We need peace.

We all dream of life before the embargo, of living normally, having enough milk."

Her words return like an echo. "We need only peace and the end of the embargo, so that children can have an ordinary life, grow up happy, study, qualify, be normal."

Zeinab, 21 (below) Zeinab's heart is breaking for her father. He is a world-renowned surgeon listed in International Who's Who, a gentle healer whose speciality is correcting children born with bone deformities. He has suffered a relapse of a virulent form of cancer, which cannot be treated in Iraq.

Zeinab was 14 when the embargo was imposed on Iraq. "First we could not afford sweets and chocolates, then as we became older we wanted to experiment with make-up, clothes, but it is barely possible." A lipstick costs the average professional's monthly salary.

She is now 21, in her second year as a student of architecture and has witnessed an exodus of skilled teachers. "Most experienced professors leave the country to provide for their families, so only young, inexperienced lecturers teach now. Many students leave university, because they cannot afford course books and stationery - some cannot even afford the transport to and from home. Education no longer counts, this is a new phenomenon.

"And humanity has died. People have changed, they are no longer human, laughing, giving; only survival counts."

And Zeinab's hopes? Her dreams? Her 11-year-old brother, Mustafa, jumps up. Mustafa was only three when the embargo was imposed. "How does an Iraqi teenager have a dream?"

Zeinab talks of her hope "to graduate, travel, visit cousins I have never met, in England," and of her dreams - "to act, to skate, to live in Hollywood or Egypt. Egypt is like Hollywood. Cleopatra, pyramids..."

But she is full of fear. "I am afraid of the future. I am afraid something might happen to my father, I am just afraid..."

Zeena, 20 (bottom) Zeena is Zeinab's sister, born just 10 months after her, and the two are as close as twins. Zeena's hopes are simple. She talks gaily of "graduating in biology", and of her dreams "of travelling all over the world, to really see the world, to visit palaces, monuments, to understand different histories and cultures". But when asked what she fears, she says, "The future. Everything in life. The past is far away, there is no present, no future"

Nebil, 21 (above) Nebil is carefully shaven, with beautifully cut, glossy hair and the gentlest eyes - at odds with his ruined, scarred hands. He sits cross-legged, hammering at glowing hot metal, and talks with eloquent intensity. He is a chain-maker, and spends his days pulling molten steel from the furnace, hammering single, glowing hot metal threads into shaped links. It is dangerous, back-breaking work. Talking costs him money: piecework earns him up to 2,500 dinars a day - just pounds 1.

"Ever since I can remember, I planned to be a doctor, but when

I was 16 the strain on my father to earn enough to keep the family was too much, I decided to leave my studies and to contribute. I took this job because it pays more than most, but it is very hard." Nebil's two young brothers and two sisters are still at school.

"Every day I pray that life will return to normal, that everybody will be happy again and that l will be able to afford to marry." He suddenly looks very young and vulnerable. "And I am afraid of another war, not for myself, but for the children who will be hurt, who will die, for the old people."

And dreams? "I have no dreams, I am too tired to dream."

As I leave, I put out my hand to shake his. Instinctively, he proffers his forearm - his blackened hand would soil mine. It is an ineffably courteous and touching gesture.

Comments