The streets of Baghdad are filled with vendors, taxicabs and a tenacious spirit. As a result of stagnant salaries and enormous inflation, most of Iraq’s work force has taken to the streets to find other ways of earning a living. Inflation has been on the rise since the west’s sanctions began to suffocate the Iraqi economy.
Ali, a taxi driver and retired soldier, supports a family of 10 by driving his old cab for up to 15 hours a day. He shows me the scars two bullets have left in his head. The government discharged him and awarded him a pension of 575 Iraqi dinars a month. Once, that covered all of Ali’s needs with money to spare. “Now,” he says, “I no longer go to collect my money. The amount is not worth the trip and the wait”.
Before the sanctions, the Iraqi dinar equalled 3.3 US dollars. Nowadays, one US dollar equals 1,975 Iraqi dinars. A cup of tea in a humble Iraqi cafe costs 250 dinars - almost half Ali’s monthly pension.
At the local money changer, I handed the clerk $25. I was shocked to see the 50,000 dinars the man counted out for me. I could barely fit the notes into the small bag I held. The clerk jokingly asked me to count them. With a smile I replied, “ It’s okay, I don’t have the whole day.” On my way out, I noticed a 25 dinar Iraqi bill lying on the ground. Passers-by, including children, ignored it; it was simply worth nothing.
Lucky are those Iraqis who have not yet had to sell their possessions. The not-so-lucky ones have literally sold everything they possessed. Earlier during the sanctions, stereos and televisions were the sold commodities. Later on, furniture of all kinds was the new item. In each stage of the sanctions, certain items were more likely to be seen for sale on the Iraqi streets. Now, the people are so desperate, they are selling their books and even their clothes.
On Al-Mutanabi street, books of all kinds are sold by the road. Old and outdated books, magazines and other forms of literature were stacked together in the strangest mix, while sellers by far outnumber the buyers. George Bush’s promise to take Iraq back to the Stone Age is getting closer to reality than ever.
In the late eighties, Iraq hosted 5 million immigrants and provided them all with jobs. Now Iraq has no work for its own population, much less food. Unemployment rate has reached record levels in Iraq’s main cities. According to Michael Nahal, head of the Middle East Council of Churches, two-thirds Iraq’s workforce is unproductive. This is not a result of laziness, but the lack of resources to work with. Without raw materials, money, and transportation, Iraq’s economy has no other direction to go but down.
Although most university graduates in Baghdad found themselves drivers behind the wheels of taxi cabs, also known as “scraps”, their thirst for knowledge is keeping Iraqi colleges and schools open. They continue to be filled with young faces and high hopes. The Iraqis lack everything but faith. All eyes look up to the sky every time you ask anyone: “how can you live through this?”.
I asked Hamid, a Baghdad taxi driver with a master’s degree in political science, “what do you think the future holds for this city?” His answer was a big smile. I failed to realize its significance for a while. As we crossed the Tahrir bridge, across the Tigris river, he said “This bridge was bombed three times during the war with America. It broke into many pieces and fell into the river. With primitive means, we rebuilt it in no time.” He emphasised the post: “Look at it, look... isn’t it better than before?”
I looked at the giant bridge, standing with pride and crossing the Tigris. Only then I understood.
Dr. Jasim Mohammed, a young doctor at Saddam’s Teaching Hospital, lamented, “We have nothing in here...” He added, pointing toward the hospital’s crowded rooms and hallways, “It doesn’t even look like a hospital. It’s like a dirty old house. There is no money. Patients are sleeping on top of each other. People don’t come here to be healed; they come here to die.”
Dr. Jasim’s voice was a strong introduction for a visit to the poorly equipped and maintained Pediatric Hospital. We walked in silence toward the third floor, where most of the sick children lie. A revolting smell greeted us. Once I stepped into the main room, where over 15 children were hanging between life and death, the odour became the least of my concerns.
Raed Muhammad, a 7-year-old boy from Al-Ramadi province, looked shy when I approached him. The innocent look on his face made me wonder whether he understood that he has a cancerous tumor in his little chest, whether he even knows what cancer is. Raed, who regularly coughs up blood, has not been receiving the appropriate medication for the kind of illness he has. “It is just a matter of days and he’ll go”, the doctor told me in English while Raed looked at us and smiled. His statement came as a shock. “Go where?” I asked him quickly. He added in a trembling voice while fighting tears, “Where all children go once they reach this part of the hospital... they all die.”
Hajar Abdullah looked so eager while waiting for her turn to be spoken to, yet she got shy the moment I asked her name. She had been in the hospital for four months, suffering from hemolytic anaemia. The empty green table beside her testified to the little medical attention that she was receiving.
I asked Dr. Mazen what the hospital provided for the patients. I was told that they provide the space and treatment if the family is able to purchase the scarce medications through the black market. The childrens’ mothers work as nurses. They bring food and, if they can, medicines. The mothers who cannot buy medicines, just sit beside their beloved children day and night. They make sure that they are well covered, they sing for them and they pray, until the children die.
Among the mothers I met was Farha Farha, from Baghdad. I learnt that Farha’s 4-year-old daughter, Ullah, suffers from meningitis, and she had been at the hospital for months with little or no means to fight the disease. As I walked hesitantly toward her room to meet her parents, a scream followed by weeping froze me. Ullah has just died.
In a lovely red dress and wide-open eyes, Ullah was lying in a small bed while her family surrounded her, crying helplessly. Ullah’s grandfather asked me to take pictures of her. I refused to disturb her peaceful departure. He insisted, saying “Please tell the world what is happening to our children. Tell the world what the sanctions have done to us.” He raised Ullah’s birth-certificate and shouted, “They’ve killed her. Is America happy now? Let them rejoice. Let them celebrate. They killed Ullah. They killed my only grand-daughter.”
Dr. Muhammad, who has been working at the hospital since his graduation in 1995, told me as I left: “I used to cry every time a child died. I used to be a friend with each one of them. But I can’t do that anymore or I’ll mourn the loss of at least three or more of my friends every day.” When such catastrophe hits the largest hospital in Baghdad, you have to wonder how the smaller hospitals manage. The answer is that they are not managing, which is why large numbers of children die each day.
Beside the hospital gate, a man was praying using his jacket as a rug. As I approached, I recognized him. He was the father of a child dying of leukemia. Long after I left the hospital, his praying voice echoed in my head: Allahu Akbar... God is Greater...
Muslimedia: May 16-31, 1999