Crisis for Children in Iraq Worsens
By Gary Bruce Smith
Orphans now homeless after being driven from children’s homes… children too scared of unexploded bombs to play in parks and sport fields… patients being operated on without proper hospital care or anesthetic. These are just a few accounts of the horrendous conditions currently affecting children in Iraq.
Contrary to reports from the Coalition media, the plight of children in Iraq is worsening despite months of ‘liberation.’ This is the view of Hani Lazim, committee member of the Iraqi Democrats Against Occupation (IDAO), who describes conditions in Baghdad and other areas of the country as “chaotic.” He states that on all levels - healthcare, medical, educational, and psychological - the children of Iraq are enduring immense hardship and suffering.
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Lazim is one of many Iraqis who can recount personal horror stories of the difficult conditions that now dictate how most Iraqis must live. He tells of his nephew in Baghdad who waited for six weeks before receiving any medical attention for a bullet wound. He states that the health situation has deteriorated to such an extent that most hospitals are almost no-go zones for most people. “Only a few private hospitals are functioning properly and the staff there have to spend their time on guard to protect themselves and the facility.” The living conditions in Baghdad are claustrophobic. “At night no one moves, roadblocks are erected in the city at the whim of the US forces and non-one knows where they are,” says Hani Lazim. He adds that the roadblocks are manned by “trigger happy” troops who don’t hesitate to shoot on sight.
Iraq’s nightmarish scenario is having a direct impact on the welfare of its children. The suffering that children endure under these unforgiving circumstances is not receiving the attention and moral support it deserves from the broader international community. This is mainly due to reportage and media coverage which in the main is being systematically filtered to present a less troubling picture to the general public. Contrary to the Coalition’s watered down version of events, Robert Fisk of the UK’s Independent reports that “…almost 1,000 Iraqi civilians are being killed every week - and that may well be a conservative figure.”1
In one of his recent articles, Fisk states that, while many people are killed and injured through crime-related incidents, Coalition raids and, more recently, ‘friendly fire,’ these cases are not being reported. The occupying forces’ attitude towards Iraqi life is illustrated by Fisk:
Even when US troops on a raid in Mansour six weeks ago ran amok and gunned down up to eight civilians - including a 14-year-old boy - the best the Americans could do was to say that they were “enquiring” into the incident. Not, as one US colonel quickly pointed out to us, that this meant a formal enquiry. Just a few questions here and there. And of course the killings were soon forgotten.2
It is a severe understatement to say that this makes for a very unsatisfactory environment for children. Hani Lazim states that the situation for children - even in terms of their natural growth and development - is intolerable. “They can’t even play soccer,” he states. “The reason for this is that, because the sport fields and parks are not being maintained since municipal services have ceased, the fields are overgrown, and the high, uncut grass obscures the remnants of cluster bombs used by the Coalition in defiance of international law. The children are too scared to play normally,” says Lazim.
More horror stories of the current situation are sketched by Lazim. One particularly alarming account is that many orphans - residing in school dormitories and other buildings - were summarily evicted from the premises by US troops and left to live “like animals on the streets.” There are an endless number of similar stories and accounts of the suffering of Iraqi children and their families.
Poverty is widespread and is a major factor that affects the overall status of Iraq’s children, adding to their escalating health and social problems. Tara Swift, a member of Arab Media Watch’s executive committee, has this personal account of family conditions she encountered:
I met a single mother with 6 children; she bakes bread to earn a living. She told me about her life, or shall I say her survival from one day to the next. She is just about managing to feed her children. She depends on ‘hand me down’ clothes and shoes for them.
The extent and severity of the situation is further underscored when medical teams and aid agencies have to leave the country due to the increased violence and lack of security, taking with them essential medical resources that the Iraqi children desperately need. Mel Lehman, representing The Children of Iraq Organization, is leading a group of American doctors to Baghdad to help train medical staff. Mel says, “I found the situation so chaotic and frightening that I decided to postpone the October and November trips; clearly, this is not a good time for a very visible group of 8 or 10 American doctors to be walking the streets of Baghdad.”
She emphasizes that the increasingly volatile security situation is having a dramatic and tragic effect on the country, particularly the children.
I think the single major issue facing the children of Iraq now is the issue facing all of the people of Iraq: How to restore peace to Iraq. The thing I really understood by being there is how frightening the lack of security really is for people. As important as the lack of electricity and phones and the devastated economy is [sic], the real issue for the children of Iraq and their parents is the lack of security. Until we have social order in Iraq and end the chaos, the children can’t grow up as normal, happy individuals in preparation for their lives as adults.
Child Healthcare in Chaos
According to the Emergency Coordinator for Feed the Children International (FTC), Ian Lethbridge, the healthcare situation for children in Iraq is very serious: “During
my last visit to Baghdad in August, I visited two children’s hospitals and witnessed hundreds of children who were sick or dying from gastroenteritis, dysentery and cholera - mainly due to drinking filthy, untreated water.” These conditions are intimately linked to the general chaos and lack of civil governance. There is no doubt, as many officials and medical professionals state, that the situation has been worsened by the occupation of Iraq and that the latter is the root cause of the continuing plight of Iraqi children.
Lethbridge sums up the past and present situations: “The nutrition and health-care of children in Iraq have been affected over the past 13 years mainly due to sanctions; but I believe that many cases of malnutrition that we are seeing after the war started a long time before. For example, children’s immune systems have been affected due to poor diet, mainly, lack of drugs and pediatric medicines, and so on. The stress caused by bombing and trauma in general exacerbates the suffering of children, especially those suffering from asthma. This is worsened by the poor supply of expensive medicines.”
It is worth noting that at the time of writing this article FTC International stopped its activities in Iraq due to the intolerable security situation.
It is a well known and often reported fact that the years of sanctions severely undermined the ability of healthcare systems to cope in Iraq. In essence, an already disastrous situation has been exacerbated by the US-UK occupation. One cannot help but reiterate the suspicions of many who are questioning why the occupying forces - with the expertise, funds and equipment at their disposal - have allowed the situation to decline as it has?
Wolfgand Friedl, Communications Officer for UNICEF, adds to this assessment:
The children of Iraq are caught up in war for the third time in 20 years. UNICEF is deeply concerned by the further deteriorating conditions brought on by this war and their impact on the children of Iraq. Almost half of the population is under the age of 18. Even before the most recent conflict began, many children were highly vulnerable to disease and malnutrition. One in four children under five years of age is chronically malnourished. One in eight children dies before their fifth birthday.
The immunization of children is another critical healthcare area that has been hampered by the poor security situation in the country. Ian Lethbridge states that, while the immunization programs were working well until April of this year, they have now come to a halt. “I believe a lot of the cold-chains have broken down.” The cold-chains maintain low temperatures, ensuring that vaccines do not spoil. The resumption of immunization programs, critical to the health of the very young, is a priority for UNICEF at the moment. A spokesperson for UNICEF states that “Some 270,000 children born after the war have had no immunizations whatsoever, and routine immunization services for all children were disrupted. The existing stocks of vaccines in the country were rendered useless during the war because the cold-chain system was broken.”
Bombs and Toys
One of the most serious residues of the recent war is the amount of unexploded ordinance lying in waiting for unsuspecting children. One weapon that not only causes immediate carnage but also devastating after-effects is the cluster bomb; its very use in this war is highly questionable under international law. One of the first reports of the use of cluster bombs in the recent conflict was in early April where civilians were killed in Hillah, south of Baghdad. The scenes of carnage from the bombs were deemed too awful by Reuters to be shown on television, but the reports spoke of scenes of children with no limbs and babies cut in half. Most of the 348 who were killed or wounded were women and children.3
Cluster bombs are incredibly destructive as they spray smaller grenade-sized explosives indiscriminately over an area the size of a football field. The danger at present is that many of these live bombs are scattered throughout the country and, as they resemble toys, they are often picked up by children, generally with fatal consequences.
Another danger that can have long-term implications is the use of depleted uranium shells by the US military. Depleted uranium (DU) is a potent radioactive carcinogen. Once absorbed by the body, DU can produce cancer in the lungs, bones, blood, or kidneys. An increasing number of cases have been reported of children living in areas where depleted uranium weapons were used who have now developed skin cancer. Children are very susceptible to this radiation and are thus at great risk. Even more frightening is the fact that depleted uranium has a half-life of 4.5 billion years.
It is also possible that cluster bombs and depleted uranium are not the only dangerous weapons that would affect Iraqi children for decades to come; there have been rumors and reports of an unnamed weapon used by the US forces in their attack on Baghdad. Tara Swift states, “All people I met [in Baghdad] are convinced that a new deadly weapon was used in the last battle for the airport. This is corroborated by the fact that the airport was sealed by the Americans and the area was closed for three weeks after the battle. More recently there have been references to such reports in the international press. The latest report was published in Turks US on July 17, quoting an unnamed, well connected American military official as saying that US soldiers who served around the airport are falling ill and not responding to treatment. This could be the High Powered Microwave bomb that the US had admitted it was going to experiment on the Iraqis.”
Swift adds another snippet of information that might have bearing on this rumor: “My uncle’s widow, an orthodontist, told me that anyone wishing to research different types of cancer should go to Al-Mansour children’s hospital next to the city hospital in Baghdad, where very rare cases of cancer are being diagnosed. The hospital is full of children sick with cancer.” This is an aspect that has received little in-depth analysis and presents the possibility that the fallout from this war may be more horrendous than many believe.
Childcare and aid organizations are absolutely unanimous on one aspect: The aftermath of the war will continue to have a profoundly negative affect on the psyches of children in Iraq. Ian Lethbridge states:
The war has contributed to a worsening of conditions for [Iraqi] children in general. Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) is also very common among [Iraqi] children as a result of the terror caused by the bombing campaigns.
No Prospect for Education
The normalization of schooling is an essential element that can help to improve the situation. However, the continuing security crisis militates against this. Lethbridge states that “generally all schools and tertiary institutions have been greatly affected by either damage through bombing, looting or a combination of the two!”
Tara Swift sketches something of the changed situation for Iraqi youngsters:
Everybody is worried about their children’s future. When I was there some schools had returned to ‘normal’ but many were in a very bad state of disrepair, and many teachers were not turning up for their jobs because of the bad security situation. Secondary school graduates were appointed as teachers because of the poor conditions and pay [due to sanctions].
Aid agencies like the FTC and others understand the desperation of the situation and are more than willing to help establish a more normalized educational routine for the children. An FTC spokesperson states, “The rehabilitation of schools is something that we have been looking at in collaboration with UNICEF but, due to the dangerous security situation, we can’t get in at the moment to assess the area. Many schools need rehabilitation, education materials, text books and equipment like chairs, tables, etc. There will be no good prospect if the international community can’t get in there, and the UN are out also.” This situation has been dramatically worsened by the recent bombing of the UN offices in Baghdad. Lethbridge fears that, consequently, there will be a reduction in the amount of assistance to the children. He also states that the UK and US reportage underplays the severity of the situation. “I think the worst thing that happened in post-war Iraq is the bombing of the UN compound as now there is very little humanitarian assistance of any kind, despite what US/UK military sources say,” he says.
He further states in no uncertain terms the effect that these events have had on the Iraqi children and their families:
This effectively ‘screwed’ millions of decent Iraqi families who just want to get on with their lives post war. A month after the war, families were frustrated at the lack of action from the Coalition, two months after [in July] families were getting desperate because they’d used up all their savings and resources. Now they are taking the law into their own hands, and, to be frank, they have no alternative in order to survive. If my children were hungry or sick I’d most likely do the same. For me personally, the greatest tragedy in Iraq is this: We [the coalition forces] went into the war with no plan to rehabilitate the country.
The final word must go to Mel Lehman of The Children of Iraq Organization whose recent visit to Iraq - in an attempt to help the children - has resulted in a personal reassessment of her personal views about her country’s involvement in Iraq.
As an American, I take a view somewhat different from that of my country. I believe we need to set up a timetable for the United States to get out of Iraq clearly stating the time when we will turn the governance back to the Iraqi people, with the UN serving as the interim role-player. Our present course is a disaster; we’re proceeding under the assumption that more American guns and more American firepower can ‘pacify’ Iraq. The contrary, tragically, is true. Our projected policy will only make things worse. There is no easy answer, but there is an answer: The answer is for the US to clearly announce now how it plans to leave Iraq and return Iraq to the Iraqis.
Gary Smith is a freelance journalist and researcher based in South Africa. His special field of research is the situation in Iraq. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Fisk, Robert, “Secret slaughter by night, lies and blind eyes by day.” The Independent September 14, 2003
 Associated Press, “A month later, cluster bombs remain deadly,” St. Petersburg Times May 18, 2003