Proud Iraqis draw veil over sanctions misery: In Baghdad, Sarah Helm finds people battling silently against suffering caused by the UN embargo

SALEH was kneeling in a pile of rotting garbage when we stopped to talk to him in the Baghdad slum of Sheikh Omar. He was, perhaps, six or seven. He didn't know his exact age.

''What are you looking for?' we asked. Twisting his bony, shirtless frame, he stared nervously towards us, clutching his booty of stinking tomatoes, before scampering up an alley to his waiting mother. Behind, two little girls, covered with flies, continued filling plastic bags from the same infested pile.

'It's for the dogs,' said a passer-by, who was clearly shamed by Western observers peering at Iraq's hungry children - pawns in a game they know nothing of, called 'sanctions'.

President Saddam Hussein has invited the world's press to see the plight of his people, creating an audience while he plays his latest card. The Iraqi people, however, are uncertain about the attention they are receiving. Determined to keep their dignity amid humiliation, they often seek to deny that a tragedy is unfolding around them.

In slum areas a recent survey by the UN Children's Fund found that nearly 10 per cent of children are now suffering from malnutrition. Since a cut in rations two weeks ago, cases of marasmus and kwashiorkor - diseases caused by severe malnutrition - have escalated. The local hospital does not have even basic antibiotics. Women in corridors double up in agony from urinary tract infections that are spreading rapidly due to bad water.

Those who can, have channelled energies into countering sanctions, by setting up an alternative economy. The motor stores of Sheikh Omar are stacked with smuggled spare parts, while old cars are pieced together with great ingenuity.

Others refuse to see their dilemma. 'We have no problems. Everything is good here. I don't hear the news. I know nothing of sanctions, I just go home after work,' said Shakr Mahmoud, 54, a spare parts dealer.

The siege mentality is difficult to escape. This conflict appears to pit the Iraqi people and their President against the entire world.

President Saddam's easy explanations have been readily grasped by many people. 'America wants to smash Iraq because Iraq is strong. The world didn't want Iraq to advance because they are frightened of us. We are not like other Arab countries. We have principles and a strong leader,' said Nahath Hashim, speaking in the Salam (Peace) coffee shop.

But the words of ordinary Iraqi people are riddled with contradictions. They know there is no real dignity in their dire situation.

Responses are usually mouthed out of an abject feeling of fear of the authorities. There are always people listening. Yes, they say, it was right to go to war over Kuwait. And yes, many young men declare: 'I would stand and fight Clinton with my own two hands.' But, nobody here wants another war, they add in the same breath.

'We are still strong. But Iraq would lose if we invaded Kuwait now. Our President doesn't want another war,' one man said. Beneath the tutored phrases, it is not hard to discern the doubts that plague the thoughts of many people. Ordinary Iraqis know that the world has moved on without them since the Gulf war. They have heard of the new peace agreement in the Middle East and they feel isolated and blacked out from the world's view.

Furthermore, they see no prospect of change. 'We are alone. Alone in the world and cut off. How would you feel if everyone was against you? But what can we do? What would you do,' asked a young doctor, as patients thrust their useless prescripton papers in his face.

Lowering his head in a crowded store, one young man suddenly uttered the word 'mistake', and those around fell silent. 'Perhaps the invasion was a mistake,' he said. 'Kuwait is ours. We know that from the history books, but look at all the problems we have now.' Another storeholder said; 'Mistake? Leave this question.' But the distress in his voice was easy to detect.

Occasionally, a brave voice will articulate what is written in the eyes of many. 'Of course, you can imagine what these people really think. But they will not say it to you,' a young Iraqi student said. 'They know the truth, but they are afraid, and they don't want to be embarrassed. You must respect their dignity.'

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Application Developer / Software Developer

£21000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software development compa...

Recruitment Genius: Brand Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Do you wish to be part of an exciting journey ...

Guru Careers: Talent Manager

£30-35k (P/T - Pro Rata) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienc...

Anna Woodward: Reporting Analyst

£35,000: Anna Woodward: Are you excited about making an impact on a FTSE 250 b...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower