Iraq's children cling on for a grim life

The in-tray that holds horrors of deprivation
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A VISIT to Philippe Heffinck's office is a grim business. Not because of the feral children prowling through the garbage round the corner. Certainly not because there's anything wrong with the UNICEF office in Baghdad, a block of former apartments whose soft carpeting and subdued telephone bells could be a government department in Mr Heffinck's native Belgium. Coffee is served piping hot, with plenty of milk and sugar.

Even the files on Mr Heffinck's desk have about them an anodyne quality. "The 1996 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey" doesn't indicate much pain. "Nutritutional Status Survey at Primary Health Centres During Polio National Immunization Days" gives an almost positive gloss to Iraq's deterioration. But dig through the contents of these white-covered documents and listen to Mr Heffinck's cold, analytical words, and you realise that Iraq's children are going through hell.

"We have found that chronic malnutrition stands at 31 per cent for children up to five years old," Mr Heffinck says in a deceptive monotone. "That accounts, in the whole of Iraq, for 1.1 million children, including the Kurdish areas. This is a serious problem - particularly serious when you have chronic malnutrition up to two years old, because that is the period when the brain is formed. You become stunted. There is a lack of physical and mental growth that will afflict the child - his schooling, his job opportunities, his chances of founding a family and quite possibly his or her offspring as well."

All this was said with the curt politeness of a civil servant, of a UN bureaucrat going through his statistics. And one could not but reflect on what this represents. While the UN inspectors are neutering Iraq's weapons programme - and with good reason - the same organisation is imposing sanctions that are crippling the country's children. Of course, Saddam is to blame - Saddam is always to blame. But it is we who are imposing the economic blockade on Iraq, and it is Mr Heffinck - on our behalf - who is drawing up these dreadful statistics.

"People think," he goes on, "that with more food and medicine, things are going to work better. But the quantity of available water has decreased by 50 per cent and the quality of water has deteriorated in some Iraqi governorates to 35 per cent contamination. Because it's not just the water- treatment plants that need repairing in Iraq but the pipes as well. Then you have the lack of electricity that contributes to the deterioration in health."

I already understood the revolting mechanics of electrical power and water; a UN hygiene official had explained it to me, equally coldly, 24 hours earlier: when electricity is cut - which it is every three hours, for example, in Basra - the pumps stop and the pressure in the leaking water pipes falls. Into the vacuum is sucked sewage which runs out of the taps. Even the original source of the water is now contaminated in Iraq.

"There should be 5,000 tons of garbage collected in Baghdad every day," Mr Heffinck says. "But the capacity available is only 3,500 tons - because sewage treatment plants are not functioning properly. So very often the overspill is dropped in the river - from which water is pumped for drinking. In Baghdad, only 30 per cent of the population is connected with a sewage system - the big majority use septic tanks which don't work well in a shallow water-table like this.

"But now many mechanical septic-tank emptiers are not working due to lack of spare parts. So people are forced to empty their tanks into the drains; and this is one cause of diarrhoea diseases and typhoid fevers among children. "You have a lack of electricity, a lack of clean water and a lack of environmental sanitation: the relationship between these three is a deadly combination."

Those files on Mr Heffinck's desk with their white covers tell the story with great clarity. A child who is malnourished cannot fight diseases; thus the large increase in the number of diarrhoea cases - on average, every child in Iraq suffers 3-15 episodes of diarrhoea each year. But in the past, a child entering hospital with diarrhoea had only a one in 600 chance of dying. Now one in 50 children are dying from curable diarrhoea.

The statistics seem endless. Cereal production has fallen from 3.5 million tons to 2.2 million, contributing to child malnutrition, which in turn leads to disease and poor school attendance. Every child between six and 11 used to attend school. Now only 63 per cent of that figure turns up for class."

Mr Heffinck is not a man to make comparisons, but it doesn't take long to work out the implications of his figures, the 1.1 million children with chronic malnutrition, the 330,000 with acute malnutrition, the kwashiokor cases turning up in their hundreds in Iraq's hospitals: the degree of malnutrition in Iraq is about equal to that of Zaire.

But the explosion in child cancer that has followed the 1991 Gulf War is a subject about which Mr Heffinck and his colleagues refuse to make any comment, even though they admit they have heard talk of depleted uranium shells causing leukemia. And not once does child cancer feature in those white files.

Now isn't that an odd fact?