Children Suffer on Baghdad Streets


By Matthew Chance

May 29, 2003

Since the collapse of the Iraqi regime, homeless children, often drug-addicted and hungry, have become a common sight on the streets of Baghdad.

There are no exact statistics, but aid workers say the looting of orphanages in the days after the fall of the capital has worsened the problem. Walking through the city I saw a few of Baghdad's unwanted children splashing in a polluted city fountain. It looked like fun, but the water was stagnant and contaminated with raw sewage. They risked disease for a few laughs.

Since the war there are too few schools to keep them off the streets and aid workers say homelessness among Baghdad's young has exploded. Carol Derooy, of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), said: "Definitely, we know of institutions that have been looted. Institutions where children have been residing, many of these children have left.

"Some have come back to the institutions but the state of the institutions is not good at all and children are on the street, definitely." And Charles MacCormack, of Save The Children, said he had seen schools littered with rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and weapons. "Until the schools cleared of this ordinance, it will be impossible for children to resume normal activities," he said.

One eight-year-old boy, called Haider, told me both his mother and father died long ago and that his orphanage was smashed and looted in the days after Baghdad fell. Now he sleeps in shop doorways. It is a story of post war neglect all too common here. And there's worse. Just a few steps from our hotel we came across little Amr Ibrahim. He could tell us his name, but little else. The bag of glue at his mouth has robbed him of his memories.

How many others are in this desperate state is anyone's guess. Passers by rarely intervene like this -- with so many problems of their own, few even care. There have been efforts by some U.S. soldiers, acting out of pity, to find homes for a few. But some Iraqis say they blame these forces for failing to protect their country's most vulnerable. Aid agencies say they are pressing the authorities running Iraq into working out ways of prevention and getting those already homeless and addicted into care. Under Saddam, the problem of unwanted children was taboo and kept hidden, children on the streets were slung into orphanages, even jail. But this life on the streets seems hardly better.

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