Children starve, Saddam survives

Robert Fisk, among scenes of appalling filth, is told: 'When you have no food, you don't worry about democracy or who your leaders are'
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The Independent Online
IN FRONT of Fatima Hassan's house, a tide of pale-blue and creamy- white liquid streams gently through an open sewer. Her iron front door cannot hide the stench, nor the sound of the screaming, barefoot children in the street . Jumping the sewer - leaping across the little canyon of filth - is a pastime for the kids of the Basra suburb of Dour Sheoun. Stand outside Fatima's door and they run towards you, blistered, whey- faced, with large eyeballs, the irises ivory-white with malnutrition.

On my way down from Baghdad, I handed a beggar girl a 250-dinar note - scarcely 10p - only to see her thrown to the road by her friends, the money torn from her dirty fist. Here, a woman - a bright, pretty woman in a black chuddar with a white headband - introduces us to her eight- year old daughter, Roula, then suddenly says: "Please take her with you." Sundus Abdul-Kader is just 33 - and she is ready to give away her own child. Fatima has five children. Her husband was a car painter in Kuwait before Saddam Hussein invaded the emirate; he stayed on for eight months after its liberation, still working but unpaid by his Kuwaiti employers. Now he sells sandwiches. "We don't eat eggs or milk," she says. "We can't afford to eat meat. We drink the tap-water - we don't boil it. This little boy of mine has trouble breathing, this one has a swollen stomach because of the water. We go to the hospitals but the doctors say there is no medicine. Wherever we go, they say there is no medicine."

Outside, an older woman in black pushes her way through the street urchins. "I have two crippled people in my family," she pleads. "They have fever and sore throats. Can you take them with you to Europe?"

We explain that we are not doctors, but she thrusts into our faces a thick piece of yellow paper with a history of muscular dystrophy from which her relatives are suffering.

After half an hour, my writing hand grows numb listing the sicknesses and starvation. A child has anaemia, another has severe respiratory problems, a third cannot control its bowels; it appears to be dying. "When are you going to lift the sanctions?" yet another woman shouts at me. "Our children need food and clothes."

At the end of the street, there is a tootling trumpet, a fat man with a drum and a stooped old soldier marking time for a squad of 300 middle- aged, half-bearded men, all carrying Kalashnikov rifles but most of them in shoddy uniforms. These are the local Dad's Army, Saddam's heroic Volunteers, preparing to withstand the might of the US. They march round a traffic island while the children chant the national anthem.

"A country that stretches its wings over the horizon

And clothed itself in the glory of civilisations...

This land is a flame and a light,

Like a mountain that overlooks the world...

We have the anger of the sword

And the patience of the Prophet."

Then the kids return to sewer-jumping. And this, remember, is the country which - according to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair - threatens the whole world.

North of Basra, the Baathist militiamen and soldiers cruise the Baghdad highway in pick-up trucks, the soldiers in balaclavas, a heavy machine- gun fixed to the roof of the driver's cab, searching for the Shia Muslim guerrillas of the marshes. Where the marsh Arabs live by the road, massive tank pens have been built alongside their villages, 30 or 40 T-55 battle tanks in each compound, an army of occupation in its own country. For Iraq is disintegrating by the day, its cities run by their governors, almost out of touch with Baghdad. No one travels the bandit-held roads at night.

Saddam's portrait still stands, pallid and fading, around the streets of Basra. It hangs inside the foyer of Basra's General Hospital, an old infirmary built by the British before the 1914-18 war with tiny yellow bricks and narrow Scutari-style corridors.

Dr Abdul-Amir Al-Hafaji wants to show us his children's ward. It is a disgrace, the floors stinking of urine, the pillows spattered with blood, the blankets filthy. The hospital ran out of disinfectant long ago. Rubber gloves are rewashed between operations. Syringes are re-used. So are the plastic shoes which staff wear on the blood-slippery floor of the operating theatre.

On one bed lies Montaza Nather with abdominal distension and fever, one of nine children who sell cigarettes on the street to support a family, whose father earns just pounds 1.66 a month. He is starving, a child of only 17kg who should weigh twice as much. There are flies on his face and hands. Two small girls are sick with typhoid, watching us carefully, ignoring the legions of flies crawling on the blankets.

"We were forced to reopen our pediatric clinic two years ago because there were so many sick children," Dr al-Hafaji says. "It's due to malnutrition, poverty, lack of medicines. We are short of antibiotics and anti-diarrheal medication. We are having a hundred typhoid cases a month, but it is two or three times that in summer." He appears not to notice the evil smells from the floor. "We used to have an excellent vaccination programme. We had pure water. Typhoid, malnutrition, diarrhea, measles, polio - we never saw such cases."

And all this, I kept reflecting, was supposed to make the Iraqi people rise up against the president whose portrait hangs even on the walls of their homes. "They may not like Saddam," a dispirited Western aid official tells me later, "but these people have been reduced to penury. They live in shit. And when you have no money and no food, you don't worry about democracy or who your leaders are. All you care about is surviving."