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Journey to Iraq: the other face of Baghdad

Ramzy Baroud

From a distance, you wouldn’t think that this is a city under siege. And why should you? Its giant bridges, ancient ruins and ever-flowing rivers are a sign of a well-nurtured civilization. Once you get close to its alleyways, streets and hospitals however, you will be shocked to see a very different reality. It is Baghdad, the age-old city, still standing on the banks of its great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates.

While the moon was gently kissing the Tigris’s, face like a mother sending her baby to sleep, my bus was loudly violating the quietness of the night. In no time the rising sun was shining through at my hotel’s window. I was ready for my first day in Baghdad. The friendly faces of the Iraqi workers in the hotel greeted me. Within hours, Baghdad felt like home, even though this was my first visit.

It was a few days after Eid al-Adha. The spirit of the festival was still there. But another spirit was also present; the spirit of those fighters who are determined to survive. Iraq now is a very poor country. Strangely enough, Iraq has all the means to be ranked as a prosperous and wealthy place. Yet the US-UN sanctions have left Iraq with very little to even feed its own population.

Many assume that the îoil-for-food’ program, initiated by the UN, provides Iraqi families with enough food to survive. Clearly the program is failing to do that. The head of the Red Cross operations in Iraq said “People falsely think that the UN oil-for-food program is enough to meet the needs of the Iraqi people. That is not the case. The program was intended to supplement the needs of the Iraqis.” He added “the rations that the program provide is not enough. The rations are hardly given fully, and for logistical reasons, the southern areas in Iraq don’t usually get their fair share.”

When we asked the head of UNICEF, Anupama Rao Singh, about oil-for-food, she replied that “$5.2 billion are supposed to find their way to the people of Iraq. Unfortunately, only 3.3 billion get there. A third of this amount gets used for technicalities, to pay for the operation expenses. Only 2/3 of the $3.3 billion are spent on humanitarian missions and that is not enough.” Yet many more problems and statistics pour from everywhere to tell one horrifying fact. Even with the sanctions lifted, Iraq’s problems will not be easy to resolve soon. Some of these problems, such as îBrain Drain’, crimes and homelessness could take many years to treat. Others, such as the health problems being created by the radio-active îdepleted uranium’ which is used by the US and its allies in the missiles that they regularly fire at Iraq (and which has a half-life of 4.5 million years), require more than a few years to resolve.

The most vulnerable targets in this war of sanctions, are those who have very little means to resist - children. Most studies conducted by both governmental and non-governmental organizations show that between 200-250 Iraqi children under the age of five die every day as a direct result of the UN sanctions against children. Others believe that this figure understates the problem, because many more deaths go unreported, especially in poor and rural areas in southern and northern Iraq.

UNICEF’s statistics show that one out of every four children in Iraq is malnourished. According to UNICEF’s most recent report, malnutrition was not known anywhere in Iraq before the sanctions. Those children that survive malnutrition, encounter many other obstacles in their lives, especially in school. “For those who don’t die or become very ill, their ability to learn and function properly is impaired, and their capacity to reach their full potential is in great danger”, Ms. Singh said. Others lack the strength to fight other diseases, because their immune systems don’t function properly. For example, according to UNICEF, a child’s chances of dying from measles are 400 times greater if he is malnourished.

Other health problems are being caused by the absence of clean water in many areas, and the shortage of immunizations. These factors have led to an dramatically increased mortality rate from diseases which were unknown in Iraq, such as polio.

These numbers and statistics come to life once you walk in the streets of Baghdad and once you wander in its impoverished markets. Statistics regarding homelessness can never convey the feeling of seeing Iraqi children begging in the streets. On Haifa Street, I witnessed a group of 20 Iraqi children between the ages of 5 and 10 approach a man. A child asked for money to buy food. He pointed at his mouth and belly as a sign of hunger. The man reached his pocket with enthusiasm and handed the boy a full dollar. Then he declared, “I have no more money, that is it”. The man left behind 20 children beating each other in the hope that one of them might eat that night.

It was only then that I saw the real face of Baghdad.

Muslimedia: May 1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 5

Muharram 15, 14201999-05-01

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