Global Policy Forum

Iraq Sanctions Leave Mark On Children:


By Charles M. Sennott

The Boston Globe
January 25, 1999

They are Iraq's lost generation - stunted by malnourishment, trapped in ignorance, orphaned by war, and forgotten by the world.

In an open market in downtown Baghdad, an army of these Iraqi street kids peddle cigarettes, shine shoes, and lift wallets under an enormous, hand-painted mural of a smiling Saddam Hussein.

These children are living evidence of what the United Nations' imposed economic sanctions have wrought in Iraq - and a disturbing vision of the future. Even if the embargo were lifted tomorrow, hundreds of thousands of children would be left with irreparable developmental damage caused by eight years of crippling sanctions. But sanctions alone can't be blamed. The suffering is compounded by a nation dragged into two costly wars, a dictatorship that builds palaces while children starve, and a bureaucracy that lets urgently needed medicine sit in warehouses.

But now there is new momentum to ease the UN embargo in the aftermath of the US-led airstrikes against Iraq last month. UN Security Council members France, China, and Russia stepped up efforts last week to ease sanctions. The United States insists that sanctions are the only way to contain Iraq's program to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Despite the diplomatic parrying over sanctions, the children of Iraq continue to suffer from them.

On Baghdad's streets, many children are stunted by years of malnutrition. Children who say they are 15 and 16 look more like 9- or 10-year-olds. They are glaringly uneducated and ignorant of the modern world. Of 30 children interviewed through an interpreter, not one of them knew what a computer was. Simple questions were greeted with blank stares and downward glances.

A tall boy with vacant eyes sat in front of the huge mural of Saddam Hussein's disturbing grin. The boy was filthy and flies buzzed around him. About six younger boys, sitting on rusted paint cans and waiting to shine shoes of passersby, explained that he just doesn't talk to anyone anymore.

''He used to talk and he used to go to school,'' said Saad. ''But now he won't say anything. He just sits there and gets food out of the trash.''

The market is officially named The Market for the Friends of the Ministry of Interior. But everyone calls it ''Ali Baba's,'' referring to the gangs of young thieves and pickpockets who flock there to fence stolen goods. Rows of tables are laid out with watches, radios, wallets, and used clothing.

Qais Jabar, 16, and his brother, Rassol, 15, dropped out of school and live by peddling junk they pick up on the street. Their father was among the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers who died in the Iran-Iraq war, and they do what they can to help their mother feed the family.

Qais carried a broken window he found at a building damaged in US missile attacks, an item he thought might bring 10 cents at the market. His brother was trying to sell a pair of cracked, plastic sandals and a hair brush.

When asked repeatedly what he wanted for his future, Qais kept replying, ''I just want to live my life.''

Three older men wearing sports jackets suddenly appeared at Qais's shoulder and appeared to be government officials. One of the older men said, ''Tell him you want an end to sanctions.''

''Yes,'' the boy nodded, looking down. ''This is what we want. Do you want to buy a window?''

Nearby, children waded through the traffic of Liberation Square, begging for money. One boy without shoes pleaded and cried with his hand held out on a cold, gray winter day.

The squalor of this corner of the city, and the hunger and lack of education here, are not so different from many Third World slums throughout Asia and Africa. Many veteran international aid workers say Baghdad has less suffering among its young street people than New Delhi, Mexico City, and even Cairo.

But for Iraq the poverty and the hopelessness of its youth are stark reminders of how far the country has fallen. In the early 1980s, Iraq was a confident and wealthy nation, the second-largest producer of oil in the world. It had some of the developing world's best hospitals and universities. It boasted high literacy rates and low percentages of child deaths.

Now, veteran UN workers compare Iraq to the world's basket cases in terms of illiteracy and infant mortality.

''This was a proud country, and now we have lost a whole generation. They are wasted, and without them we have to ask, ''What is our future?'' asked Ali Jassim, 34, who taught English in a middle school for 10 years until he could no longer live on a salary of $10 a month and took to driving a taxi.

After Hussein's military miscalculations - the bloody and grueling 10-year war with neighboring Iran and his invasion of Kuwait - Iraq is exhausted and defeated. The punishing UN economic sanctions imposed as a condition of the cease-fire in the 1991 Persian Gulf War further crippled the country. Since 1995, Iraq has been allowed to import oil for food and medicine.

Michelle Nahal, director of the Middle East Council of Churches aid program in Iraq, walked through the open market on a recent cold evening looking for the children who sleep in doorways to offer them shelter.

''Most are orphans of war, all are malnourished and their growth stunted as a result,'' said Nahal. ''The problem is these developmental problems can't be reversed. This generation will be written off.''

This month, the UN aid program UNICEF reported that 1 million Iraqi primary and secondary school pupils did not enroll in school, or 20 percent of the total. About 200,000 more dropped out during the year.

Illiteracy rates are increasing at 5 percent a year. About 25 percent of children under age 5 are malnourished. In 1991, before the sanctions, only 9 percent were.

These statistics make Iraq one of the world's few countries that are steadily declining in health and education, according to UNICEF.

''The education system has collapsed,'' said Gloria Fernandez, who leads UNICEF's education projects. There are no books, schools are falling apart, and teachers are quitting over unbearably low pay, she said.

Suham Hamza, who is a junior high school teacher just outside Baghdad, said, ''The kids who haven't dropped out come to school hungry, tired, and in rags. They can't concentrate. They just slip further and further behind.''

These are the children who survive the sanctions. Many do not. Activist groups fighting sanctions, such as the US-based Voices in the Wilderness, cite a New England Journal of Medicine study of Iraq from 1992, which concluded that nearly 6,000 additional child deaths occur per month as a result of the sanctions. The figure was based largely on data provided by Iraq and the study was conducted at the height of the postwar impact of sanctions. Nevertheless, Voices in the Wilderness and others extrapolate that monthly mortality rate out over eight years to conclude as many as 500,000 children have died from sanctions.

The former UN coordinator for humanitarian aid in Iraq, Dennis Halliday, has supported this staggering figure. Halliday quit the UN after watching the suffering due to sanctions.

''We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is illegal and immoral,'' Halliday said in a recent interview.

But senior UN officials counter that the projections of hundreds of thousands of deaths are a reckless distortion. They say that it has been virtually impossible to obtain an accurate picture of child deaths caused by the sanctions. John Mills, a spokesman for the UN's oil-for-food program, said there is ''intense suffering.'' But he added that exaggerations of death tolls do not help the situation.

Recently, UN officials have focused on what they see as widespread and inexplicable delays of distribution of aid by Iraqi officials. Mills said that $287 million worth of medicines provided through the oil-for-food program - nearly half of the medicines delivered over the past two years - remain in warehouses. Another $8 million earmarked for ''therapeutic milk'' for malnourished infants and protein biscuits for nursing mothers have not been delivered, he added.

''These are allocations just to stop the malnutrition,'' Mills said. ''Unfortunately, they do not even begin to address the more costly and difficult efforts needed to turn around the effects of malnutrition.''

On the streets of the Ali Baba market the effects are on display every day. The ''generation of the sanctions'' who gather in this market have a song that they consider an anthem. It's by Iraqi pop star Khadem Sahair and is titled ''Remember.'' It was blaring on a radio that 18-year-old Ethar Abbas, who dropped out of school in fourth grade, was trying to peddle.

Roughly translated, the lyrics are:

When you go to sleep at night, remember. My people eat stone

To stop the hunger.

Can you sleep at night?

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