UN sanctions turn Iraq into land of scavengers

Click to follow

As the heat of the day beats down on the ancient Tigris river, Athwer Al-Kanimi heaves up another shovelful of dirt and rocks, and sifts it into a plastic tub. Eventually, there is nothing but silt, and then - sometimes - the faintest sparkle of gold dust.

As the heat of the day beats down on the ancient Tigris river, Athwer Al-Kanimi heaves up another shovelful of dirt and rocks, and sifts it into a plastic tub. Eventually, there is nothing but silt, and then - sometimes - the faintest sparkle of gold dust.

The slender young man and a dozen others stand waist-deep every morning in the filthy water, panning for gold in a nation that has been reduced by sanctions to creative coping.

"This is very hard work but I like to do it," said Mr Kanimi, who sells his cache to a jeweller for about 50p a day. "In the winter, I find work in a restaurant, but this pays better."

The gold these young men are panning for is not a natural feature of the Tigris. Long ago, Baghdad's jewellers were so wealthy that when they cleaned out their shops, small links and gold filings were simply swept into the river.

Now Iraq is so poor that men are salvaging the detritus of the past to make ends meet.

A decade after the United Nations imposed a sweeping economic embargo on the oil-rich nation, ordinary Iraqis are increasingly finding strength in their history as they get on with their daily lives.

"We are an ancient civilisation, and 10 years of sanctions mean nothing compared with that," said Qassem, an artist and owner of the Halawi Gallery and café in Baghdad.

"We invented the alphabet, the wheel, art and poetry. What can the American government do to a people like this?"

At first glance, Baghdad appears to be a thriving city of construction, congestion and commerce. Cars choke well-maintained roads. Sprawling mosques, grand government buildings and luxurious private homes are taking shape, despite a shattered economy. Jewellery store windows are filled with gold and there is no sign of the bombs that pounded the city during the Gulf war. But it does not take long to realise the impact on society of the trade embargo.

Children beg in the souk and sell newspapers or incense on the street. Periodic power cuts mean sudden darkness and stifling heat amid an average temperature this summer of 49C (120C). Inflation is so rampant that many people have taken second jobs.

Rezak Ahmed drives a taxi by day and works in a pharmacy at night, barely able to provide for his 10 children, aged between four and eighteen. "I work all day and night and then I worry when I'm asleep," said Mr Ahmed, over a cup of sugared tea.

Even nature seems to be conspiring against the people of Iraq. The summer heat is as omnipresent as President Saddam Hussein, whose portrait dominates every street corner. A devastating drought is entering its third year - imperilling food production in a country with less than 12 per cent arable land.

"I cannot live this way any longer, and neither should my children," said Kula Jabar, a former civil servant who now supports her family with her skill on the sewing machine. "I cannot afford meat or fruits or pretty clothes for my daughter. We have sold our luxuries," she said.

In such a battered economy, the culture of baksheesh, or bribery, is so ingrained that a sign in the lobby of the Ministry of Oil instructs visitors: "Please leave all gifts with the receptionist."

Middle-class and wealthier families long ago began selling possessions to boost their incomes. First, the extra television and second car. Then the jewellery, carpets and antiques.

But perhaps the saddest sight in Baghdad is the Friday morning book market, in which whole libraries are laid out for sale on blankets on Muttanabi street. The collections of books - art, history, fiction, poetry, literature and scientific works in a dozen languages - show the depth and breadth of Iraqi cultural life. More than anything else here, they illustrate that war and deprivation have destroyed the country's potential to become a leading social and economic force in the Middle East.

A UN-controlled oil-for-food programme has meant that the predominantly Shiite Kurdish provinces in the north are, for the first time, sharing in Iraqi oil revenues. Quality of life here has greatly improved, as aid groups and the UN restore services, build houses and distribute food. In southern and central areas, the humanitarian programme has staved off famine, but hardship is pronounced.

Comments