Sunday 18 May 2003
Baghdad -- In his air-conditioned German-made car, Brigadier Hesham Al Rawi sits outside the all-girls high school where his 16-year-old daughter, Ragat, is a student.
He is trying to make sure she is safe, but he cannot be here every day. Al Rawi has another daughter in college, three school-age sons and a teacher wife -- and all of them, he believes, need his protection.
So every day of the week, he sits outside a different school, hoping that nothing goes wrong with the ones he is not guarding at the moment.
"The situation," he said, "is very difficult."
Al Rawi's children, like all children here, must learn to live in the new Iraq: a suddenly unpredictable and treacherous place where armed gangs overrun familiar neighborhoods, unexploded munitions speckle favorite playgrounds, and poverty and disease that had been gnawing at the nation before the war now thrive.
"Parents have a reason to be afraid for their children," said Rafah Kishtin,
the principal of Ragat's school. "There is no security in Iraq anymore. If somebody comes to shoot us, we can do nothing to protect ourselves."
Nothing is the way it used to be. Nowhere is safe anymore.
Despite 24-hour patrols by American soldiers, nightly gunfire echoes off the streets of Iraq's major cities. In some parts of Baghdad, daytime shootouts have become common.
No one can tell how many children get caught in the cross fire, because Baghdad's emergency rooms -- looted, lacking basic medicine and flooded with patients -- stopped keeping records of the injured after Saddam Hussein's regime fell last month.
But during one 30-minute interval last week, three children with gunshot wounds and two toddlers with shrapnel wounds from an exploded cluster bomb arrived at Al Yarmuk emergency hospital.
"All the people in our neighborhood have guns and they use them for any reason, sometimes for no reason at all," complained Adhab Habib, whose niece, Seja Turki, 7, moaned in her father's arms, her hands and legs smeared with coagulating blood.
Habib said Seja was shot accidentally when a group of neighbors fired Kalashnikov assault rifles at the walls of her family's house, apparently in an attempt to stop a children's argument over a soccer ball in the street. One bullet went through little Seja's front door and then through the girl's left thigh.
"I want to protect my daughters. How can I do it? Where do I go to look for safety?" wondered Suriyah Allam. Allam's two teenage daughters, Nohar Afar and Ronza, were shot when looters tried to break into the girls' apartment.
U.S. military officials in Baghdad say they are aware of the dangers to ordinary Iraqis. They have deployed an additional 9,000 troops to combat crime in the capital in the last month, bringing the total number of troops here to 25,000.
"We are concerned a lot about security. It is our top priority," Major Gen. William Webster said at a U.S. news briefing Saturday. He promised that night patrols would be doubled.
SEWAGE AND DIARRHEA
Street violence is not the only threat to the lives of Iraqi children. UNICEF said looters have stripped many of the country's already dilapidated water treatment plants of purification equipment and chemicals. Hundreds of thousands of tons of raw sewage are pumped into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers daily, polluting the major source of drinking water for Iraqis.
As a result, thousands of children here are suffering from gastroenteritis and diarrhea. Those conditions lead to dehydration and acute malnutrition, which have doubled in the past year, UNICEF said.
Sprawled on a fly-infested cot at Baghdad Pediatric Hospital, Abdullah Salem's tiny body was too wasted to wriggle or scream with pain. The 4-month old infant simply opened his mouth and stared with dark brown eyes too big for his shrunken face.
After 20 days of continuous diarrhea and vomiting, Abdullah weighed only 6 pounds -- 2 pounds less than when he was born. His skin was a deadly greenish brown. His matchstick hands hung uselessly out of the sleeves of a shirt that was too big for him. An IV drip thicker than Abdullah's thumb was attached to his arm, pumping the baby full of fluid and antibiotics, which his body so far would not hold.
"Our doctors will try to do everything they can to save him," said Dr. Ahmed Abdul Fatah, hospital deputy director, touching Abdullah's forehead. His words did not sound promising.
As many as 1,000 children arrive at the hospital every day, more than 700 of them with diarrhea, Fatah said. About 25 to 30 look like Abdullah. Most children that sick will die.
Unexploded munitions strewn around residential neighborhoods all over Iraq kill and maim several children every day, doctors and U.N. officials say.
Shahker Moqdan, a chubby, inquisitive 6-year-old in dirty knee-length khaki shorts, is luckier than many children here. During the war, as the rest of Baghdad shivered at dusk, bracing for another horrendous night of U.S. bombardment, Shahker went to sleep peacefully at a relative's house in Baqubah,
a town about 30 miles to the north of the capital that went through the war practically unscathed.
Back in Baghdad with his family, Shahker found a tantalizing new gap in the wall behind Nidhal Al Arab primary school's backyard and decided to explore it.
He had just climbed through the opening when something exploded with a very loud thump.
Shahker saw red smoke rising from the ground less than a foot in front of him. He looked down. Blood was flowing thickly out of a deep gash under his left knee. Lots of blood. But the only injury Shahker received when a piece of live ordnance exploded at his feet was a deep cut that has now almost healed.
DAYDREAMS AND REALITY
Wounded children, dying babies, schoolyard minefields. This is not the new Iraq that Khairiya Hamil, the principal of Shahker's school, wants for the children there.
In Nidhal Al Arab school, where walls are dotted with bullet holes and two large fortified trenches left by Hussein's Republican Guard fighters dominate the yard, Hamil daydreams with her students -- 425 boys and girls all yearning for peace -- about the new Iraq they want to see.
"My children paint beautiful pictures of our new world in their imagination, " Hamil said, smiling. From behind her back, six pairs of eyes peered curiously.
"Before the war, the children suffered because of poverty. Everybody had a relative who had been repressed," Hamil said, her words echoing off the concrete walls of her decrepit school. "Now, we talk about a new Iraq. I tell them that we are now free because Americans have liberated us. We imagine a rich, peaceful country with high salaries."
In the distance, somebody fired a gun. The discrepancy between the children's dreams and the ghastly reality of modern-day Iraq, Hamil explained with a sigh, is only passing.