Iraqi children under occupation
“Whereas the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care…..”
by Joanne Baker, Child Victims of War
May 30, 2004
“Whereas mankind owes the child the best it has to give”
Declaration of the Rights of the Child, 1959
It is a tragedy for the children of Iraq that the United Nations gave the power of occupation of their country to the only nation in the world (apart from the stateless Somalia) not to have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We should not be surprised that in the past year the children of Iraq have been subjected to every breach of human rights imaginable and that the United States aided and abetted by Britain have shredded the most fundamental tenets of our common humanity.
To enter Iraq one year after occupation is like visiting another world. I remember an April day in Baghdad two years ago, watching some young girls playing happily and safely in the street outside their home, and praying that the US would never invade this beautiful city. I don’t know where those children are now, whether they are alive or dead, but even my fearful imaginings of that time could not grasp the terrible reality that was to come.
The children of Iraq now live in a permanent state of fear and insecurity. It is difficult for the world at large to grasp that their situation is far worse now than it was at the time of Saddam and sanctions. Looking back to Iraq of 2002, it now seems a relatively golden era. Even those who suffered under Saddam are now angered by the occupation. They are angry because in post war Iraq all protection for the family and every semblance of security have been taken away. Some are saying that the occupiers have managed to do more damage to Iraq in one year than Saddam did in thirty!
In June/July 2003, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) sent a mission to Iraq. They found that approximately 48% of the population were food insecure and that while starvation had been averted “chronic malnutrition problems persist especially among vulnerable groups including children and mothers due to a lack of nutrition diversity”. They emphasised that only a marked improvement in the economy as a whole would change the situation because, although there was potentially enough food in Iraq, half the population lacked the buying power for a sustained nutritious diet. This was due to unemployment, chronic poverty and the absence of a head of household. Now, a year on, this situation has deteriorated on all three counts. Unemployment has risen; many more men have either been killed or are detained in concentration camps leaving women to fend alone, and chronic poverty is worsened by a substantial rise in prices and the absence of any state subsidies. A Christian Aid survey of a poor area of Baghdad, showed that two-thirds of poor children no longer go to school. They are often kept at home to help their parents. For some, the only household income is the food ration continued from the oil-for-food deal – rice, sugar, flour, pulses, cooking oil, tea, soap and detergent – the US have removed all dairy products except for infants, and even one of these most basic items may be missing. It provides calories but virtually no protein and no micronutrients.
Before the war, a draft document leaked from the office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, warned than the Iraqi people were far more vulnerable to any major conflict than they had been in 1991. “Of particular concern are the high levels of existing vulnerability and the dependence of most of the population on the Government of Iraq for their most basic needs…All but the most privileged have exhausted their assets and, in most cases their cash assets.” Now the Government of Iraq has been dismantled and even people’s meagre savings are at risk from US looting. With no functioning banks, people are forced to keep money and valuables in their homes. It is routine practice for US troops to confiscate (i.e. steal) all savings, jewellery and valuables during their raids. To give an example, Occupation Watch asked us to speak to a single mother, with three children, whose house was raided early one morning. She had hidden her savings under a cupboard, but the soldiers discovered it when trashing her home. They took this along with her fourteen-year-old son who is now detained in a concentration camp. She not only fears desperately for her son, but has no money to care for her other children. This is a common event in occupied Iraq.
Perhaps one of the greatest crimes of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has been to dismantle an entire state apparatus, effectively unravelling the fragile systems of survival for millions of people. All senior civil servants have been dismissed as members of the Ba’ath party and now Iraq is administratively in complete chaos. The Ministry of Health, for example, has been unable to provide a single hospital in Iraq with any medication since the beginning of the occupation despite the fact it now has a $3 billion budget. When Professor Khondah, head of the Gynaecology Department at Medical City, questioned the Ministry about this, he was told that trucks of medicines, paid for by the Iraqis, were entering Iraq but were being directed immediately into Iran and Turkey. This is not a small matter, especially as the occupiers are legally bound by the Geneva Conventions to ensure “the food and medical supplies of the population”. It is a disgrace to Britain and America that UNICEF is reporting a rise in acute and chronic malnutrition amongst children since the occupation; that doctors are observing a significant decline in birth weight, and epidemics of water-borne diseases such as typhoid and cholera are spiralling.
One of the most illusive concepts in post war Iraq is that of ‘reconstruction’. In June/July 2003 we were shocked by the lack of electricity in Baghdad, the pools of sewage, the bombed out buildings and bridges. In April 2004 nothing had changed - except for the worse! Some NGOs are struggling to stem the deterioration with their limited means but where are the great US corporations and where is all the money going? The only construction we saw in Baghdad was concrete blockades and reams of razor wire. Iraqis are understandably confused and angry. Saddam’s regime, under the most ferocious embargo, was able to repair buildings, bridges, roads, water systems, electricity and telephone services in a matter of months. Iraqi engineers are supreme in their ability to ‘fix’. The US with its seemingly infinite resources has managed to do nothing at all, and in the meantime the people suffer. Children succumb to water-borne diseases; in the hot months of the summer they cry all night from thirst and in the winter there is little light or heating. The destruction of Baghdad’s telephone exchanges means no communication and breeds a terrible sense of fear and insecurity. Mobile phones now sell at $150 plus. Few can afford them.
If lack of food, clean water and medicines are the silent killers, far more overt and deliberate crimes are taking place. These include the indiscriminate shooting of children, indefinite detention of children in concentration camps, wilful terrorising of children and indiscriminate bombing and maiming.
Many children are simply shot in cold blood. Amnesty International has cited the case of an eight-year-old child being shot by a British soldier in Basrah; an 11-year-old boy was shot by a drunken US soldier when she fired indiscriminately into a market square from her tank; a four-year-old boy was shot dead for playing with a toy gun outside his home in Baghdad; a mother and child were shot in the head while climbing into an ambulance in Fallujah; a seven-year-old boy was shot in the leg while sleeping in bed, resulting in its amputation, and so the list goes on and on. These are well-documented cases.
Children, as young as 11, are being interned in concentration camps without any legal help. Often they are kept as hostages for their fathers or are detained in mass punishment raids. A sixteen-year-old described to a Christian Peacemaker Team how he was arrested with other male members of his family and was kept standing in the sun (50C) for two days with his hands tied so he could not drink. When he pleaded for water, he was severely beaten. He was eventually released and made to walk home in just his underwear, which was deeply shaming. His mother says he now has constant nightmares.
While UNICEF and other humanitarian bodies are questioning such treatment, it seems that no one is asking why any child in Iraq should be interned at all – unless it is to keep them with their families, in which case very stringent rules apply under the Geneva conventions. We have on video an interview with the head of the Red Cross in Baghdad last July, who told us bluntly that the Red Cross was bound by an agreement with the US not to disclose anything it witnessed. He could not even disclose whether or not the US was upholding the Geneva Conventions and he certainly could not facilitate any legal access to a client. Considering the appalling revelations of torture and abuse that are now emerging and that children as well as adults are detained, this is of tremendous concern and should be questioned at the highest level.
Children are being terrorised by troops raiding their homes. During such raids they may witness many forms of physical and verbal abuse, including the shooting dead of family members. They are terrorised by tanks and blockades in the streets and violent behaviour. US soldiers often shoot at cars indiscriminately. A doctor told me how her friend’s husband was shot dead while driving his children to school. The children were still in the car and when bystanders tried to take care of the body, they were prevented from doing so. Another father was shot dead while going to work in a taxi, leaving his widow with no means to bring up the children.
Often whole areas or villages are cordoned off. The children feel terrified and trapped. In a telling report, aid-worker Helen Williams wrote: “In Abu Ghraib, just outside Baghdad, no one has been able to leave/enter the town for over one week because the Americans are blocking the roads. If the children see a helicopter or tank attacking someone ,the parents say ‘why, this is democracy and freedom’ – the children are now scared of democracy and freedom!”
An Iraqi NGO called Childhood’s Voice has set up two centres in poor areas of Baghdad, which work with local children and street children, giving them opportunities to do art, music, and drama. They told us that the children come with many behavioural problems including aggression, depression and anxiety. They are responding to the work done at the centres but progress is very fragile and can easily be halted or reversed by negative events. The massacre of Fallujah in April had a devastating impact. Hundreds of children in Fallujah were killed, maimed, lost close family members, had their homes destroyed and were left deeply traumatised. Many fled to Baghdad as refugees to stay with relatives or to be housed in Red Crescent camps. They came with terrible stories and no one in Baghdad was unaffected. It is generally believed that every child in Iraq is suffering from some level of post traumatic stress.
After so much devastating military action, Iraq has an extraordinary number of children with disabilities and there is virtually nothing in the way of rehabilitation. Baghdad’s main rehabilitation hospital was seriously looted by an armed gang last April and had 80% of its equipped and materials taken. Nothing has been replaced. There is currently no material for making prosthesis in Iraq.
In March last year, 13-year-old Nagan heard a loud explosion and ran up to the flat roof of her house to investigate. She stepped on one of the cluster bomblets, which had been scattered across her neighbourhood and her leg was sliced off just below the knee. She now has a temporary prosthesis, which she finds very painful. She is too traumatised to go back to school. In July 2003, UNICEF reported over one thousand injuries and child deaths caused by unexploded ordnance – many of them from cluster bombs – and noted 800 hazardous sites in Baghdad alone. We were told by Help, a German/Swedish de-mining NGO in Baghdad, that the US would give them no assistance in locating sites, let alone help clear them. Nagan’s district had been cleared by an Iraqi soldier and residents had written a warning message on a wall. With 300 000 bomblets showered across Iraq last year and more again in Fallujah, and with a 30% failure rate, the toll will continue daily. Children, especially those under five, are at greatest risk.
The director of the rehabilitation hospital also told us that apart from war victims, many of his patients are children with cerebral palsy. This problem has increased greatly since 1991 and he fears it may be due to the increase in radioactivity following the use of depleted uranium weapons. Downs syndrome has also increase by 4.5 fold and there is a steep rise in genetic birth defects. In Basrah, childhood malignancies and leukaemia were seen to have risen 384% and 300% respectively in areas heavily contaminated with DU. In 1991 the allies used around 350 tons in Southern Iraq and in this latest war the amount is unknown. It could range from 200 tons to 2000 tons. Unless US weapons systems are inspected, we may never know, but an increase in genetic illnesses and malignancies in the next few years, will give some indication. Children again are more vulnerable than adults to radioactivity and chemical toxicity, due to their fast cell growth and as DU has a half life of 4.5 billion years, this could affect countless generations. Visiting a gynaecology ward in a major Baghdad hospital in April, we were told that there had been a marked increase in congenital abnormalities in February and March of this year, almost a year after the initial bombing. If this pattern continues, it deserves some serious research.
If anything has improved in post war Iraq, it is that cancer drugs and pain relief are no longer sanctioned and are being provided by some NGOs. But with the health system in disarray, a general lack of medicines and patients often unable to get to hospitals, many of Iraq’s children are unnecessarily sick and dying. The environment in Iraq is heavily polluted from a number of sources and as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has emphasised, in any matter of post conflict clean up “timeliness is paramount”.
Iraq is just one example of the hypocrisy of the West in regard to human and environmental rights. Those who campaigned so vociferously against the human rights abuses of Saddam Hussein are now silent in the face of a far worse genocide. Many choose to ignore the fact that Iraq of the 1980s rose to 67th place in the Human Development Index, had the best health care in the Middle East and excellent education, with a virtual eradication of illiteracy. The majority of children in Iraq, even under Saddam, had happy and healthy childhoods. This is very far from the plight of children in 2004.
Even if the war had been legal, knowing the vulnerability of the majority of the population of Iraq and of its children in particular, the occupation should have been prepared for. The failure of the US and UK to form any coherent post-Saddam policy and to refuse to adhere to the international conventions they are bound to is criminal. It shows a complete disregard for the people of Iraq and makes a lie of any humanitarian concern. The children of Iraq are paying the price, not of conflict, but of a deep-seated colonial mindset that we in the West have still not managed to discard. If we are to stand by the human rights conventions we so seriously enacted after 1945, then they must be seen to be applied universally. Let us collectively ensure that they are applied in Iraq and that there is some hope and justice for Iraq’s children.
This article will be published in the next edition of Third World Resurgence magazine.
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