"Cherishing children is the mark of a civilized society."
- Joan Ganz Cooney
If, as I would like to believe, the above quote
suggests all children and not merely those born in Western democracies, I am
no longer certain that we live in a civilized society.
That women and children suffer the most during times of war is not a new phenomenon.
It is a reality as old as war itself. What Rumsfeld, Rice, and other war criminals
of the Cheney administration prefer to call "collateral damage" translates in
English as the inexcusable murder of and other irreparable harm done to women,
children, and the elderly during any military offensive.
U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East manifests itself most starkly in its
impact on the children of Iraq. It is they who continue to pay with their lives
and futures for the brutal follies of our administration. Starvation under sanctions
and death and suffering during war and occupation are their lot. Since the beginning
of the occupation, Iraqi children have been affected worst by the violence generated
by the occupying forces and the freedom fighters.
While I had witnessed several instances of this from the time of my first trip
to Iraq in November 2003, I was shaken by a close encounter with it, a year
later, in November 2004.
In a major Baghdad hospital, 12-year-old Fatima Harouz lay
in her bed, dazed, amid a crowded hospital room. She limply waved her
bruised arm at the flies that buzzed over the bed. Her shins, shattered by bullets
when American soldiers fired through the front door of her house, were both
covered in casts. Small plastic drainage bags filled with red fluid sat upon
her abdomen, where she had taken shrapnel from another bullet.
She was from Latifiya, a city just south of Baghdad. Three days before I saw
her, soldiers had attacked her home. Her mother, standing with us in the hospital,
said, "They attacked our home and there weren't even any resistance fighters
in our area." Her brother had been shot and killed, his wife wounded, and their
home ransacked by soldiers. "Before they left, they killed all of our chickens,"
added Fatima's mother, her eyes a mixture of fear, shock, and rage. A doctor
who was with us as Fatima's mother narrated the story looked at me and sternly
asked, "This is the freedom … in their Disney Land are there kids just like
The doctors' anger was mild if we consider the magnitude of suffering that
has been inflicted upon the children of Iraq as a direct result of first the
U.S.-backed sanctions and then the failed U.S. occupation.
According to a report released by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
on May 2 of this year, one out of three Iraqi children is malnourished and underweight.
states that 25 percent of Iraqi children between the ages of six months
and five years old suffer from either acute or chronic malnutrition. In addition,
the Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) press release on the matter
added, "A 2004 Living Conditions Survey indicated a decrease in mortality rates
among children under five years old since 1999. However, the results of a September
2005 Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis – commissioned by Iraq's Central
Organization for Statistics and Information Technology, the World Food Program,
and UNICEF – showed worsening conditions since the April 2003 U.S.-led invasion
of the country."
Also this month, on May 15, a news
story about the same UN-backed government survey highlighted that "people
are struggling to cope three years after U.S.-forces overthrew Saddam Hussein."
The report added that "Children are … major victims of food insecurity," and
described the situation as "alarming." The story continued, "A total of four
million Iraqis, roughly 15 percent of the population, were in dire need of humanitarian
aid including food, up from 11 percent in a 2003 report, the survey of more
than 20,000 Iraqi households found…. Decades of conflict and economic sanctions
have had serious effects on Iraqis. Their consequences have been rising unemployment,
illiteracy and, for some families, the loss of wage earners."
"But the hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning
in this world can twist them into curious shapes."
- Carson McCullers
Iraq's Ministries of Health and Planning carried
out the survey with support from the UN World Food Program and UNICEF. A spokesman
for UNICEF's Iraq Support Center in Amman, Jordan, David Singh, told Reuters
that the number of acutely malnourished children in Iraq had more than doubled,
from 4 percent during the last year of Saddam's rule to at least 9 percent in
2005. He also said, "Until there is a period of relative stability in Iraq,
we are going to continue to face these kinds of problems." UNICEF's special
representative for Iraq, Roger Wright, commenting on the dire effects of the
situation, said, "This can irreversibly hamper the young child's optimal mental/cognitive
development, not just their physical development."
This past March, an article titled "Garbage
Dump Second Home for Iraqi Children" addressed the appalling situation
in the northern, Kurdish-controlled Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah, where young
children assist their families in searching the city garbage dumps. It said
that children as young as seven often accompany their parents to the dumps before
school, in order to look for reusable items such as shoes, clothing, and electrical
equipment, which is then resold in order to augment the family income.
This disturbing news is not really news in Baghdad. Back in December 2004,
I saw children living
with their families in the main dump of the capital city.
Poverty in Iraq has worsened acutely during the invasion and occupation. Those
who were already surviving on the margins due to years of deprivation have sunk
further, and the children of such families have recourse to no nutrition, no
health care, no education, no present, and no future. Those from less unfortunate
backgrounds are now suffering because the family wage earner has been killed,
detained, or lost employment. Or the source of the family's income, a shop,
factory, or farm, has been destroyed, or simply because it is impossible to
feed a family under the existing economic conditions of high costs and low-to-
nil income in Iraq.
As execrable as the current situation is for Iraqi children, most of the world
media, appallingly, does not see it as a story to be covered. Even back in November
2004, surveys conducted by the UN, aid agencies, and the interim Iraqi government
showed that acute malnutrition among young children had nearly doubled since
the U.S.-led invasion took place in the spring of 2004.
Post story, "Children Pay Cost of Iraq's Chaos," read, "After the
rate of acute malnutrition among children younger than 5 steadily declined to
4 percent two years ago, it shot up to 7.7 percent this year, according to a
study conducted by Iraq's Health Ministry in cooperation with Norway's Institute
for Applied International Studies and the UN Development Program. The new figure
translates to roughly 400,000 Iraqi children suffering from 'wasting,' a condition
characterized by chronic diarrhea and dangerous deficiencies of protein."
Not only is the U.S. occupation starving Iraq's children, but occupation forces
regularly detain them as well. It is common knowledge in Iraq that there have
been child prisoners in the most odious prisons, such as Abu Ghraib, since early
on in the occupation. While most, if not all, corporate media outlets in the
U.S. have been loath to visit the subject, the Sunday Herald in Scotland
reported back in August
2004 that "coalition forces are holding more than 100 children in jails such
as Abu Ghraib. Witnesses claim that the detainees – some as young as 10 – are
also being subjected to rape and torture."
The story read, "It was early last October that Kasim Mehaddi Hilas says he
witnessed the rape of a boy prisoner aged about 15 in the notorious Abu Ghraib
prison in Iraq. 'The kid was hurting very bad, and they covered all the doors
with sheets,' he said in a statement given to investigators probing prisoner
abuse in Abu Ghraib. 'Then, when I heard the screaming, I climbed the door …
and I saw [the soldier's name is deleted] who was wearing a military uniform.'
Hilas, who was himself threatened with being sexually assaulted in Abu Ghraib,
then described in horrific detail how the soldier raped 'the little kid.'"
The newspaper's investigation at that time concluded that there were as many
as 107 children being held by occupation forces, although their names were not
known, nor their location or the length of their detention.
In June 2004 an internal UNICEF report, which was not made public, noted the
widespread arrest and detention of Iraqi children by U.S. and UK forces. A section
of the report titled "Children in Conflict With the Law or With Coalition Forces,"
stated, "In July and August 2003, several meetings were conducted with CPA (Coalition
Provisional Authority) … and Ministry of Justice to address issues related to
juvenile justice and the situation of children detained by the coalition forces.
… UNICEF is working through a variety of channels to try and learn more about
conditions for children who are imprisoned or detained, and to ensure that their
rights are respected."
Another section of the report added, "Information on the number, age, gender,
and conditions of incarceration is limited. In Basra and Karbala children arrested
for alleged activities targeting the occupying forces are reported to be routinely
transferred to an internee facility in Um Qasr. The categorization of these
children as 'internees' is worrying since it implies indefinite holding without
contact with family, expectation of trial, or due process." The report went
on to add, "A detention center for children was established in Baghdad, where
according to ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) a significant number
of children were detained. UNICEF was informed that the coalition forces were
planning to transfer all children in adult facilities to this 'specialized'
child detention center. In July 2003, UNICEF requested a visit to the center
but access was denied. Poor security in the area of the detention center has
prevented visits by independent observers like the ICRC since last December
A section of the report that I found very pertinent, as I'd already witnessed
this occurring in Iraq, stated, "The perceived unjust detention of Iraqi males,
including youths, for suspected activities against the occupying forces has
become one of the leading causes for the mounting frustration among Iraqi youth
and the potential for radicalization of this population group."
On Dec.17, 2003, at the al-Shahid Adnan Kherala secondary school in Baghdad,
I witnessed U.S. forces detain 16 children who had held a mock, nonviolent,
pro-Saddam Hussein the previous day. While forces from the First Armored Division
sealed the school with two large tanks, helicopters, several Bradley fighting
vehicles, and at least 10 Humvees, soldiers loaded the children into a covered
truck and drove them to their base. Meanwhile, the rest of the students remained
locked inside the school until the U.S. military began to exit the area.
Shortly thereafter, the doors were unlocked, releasing the frightened students,
who flocked out the doors. The youngest were 12 years old, and none of the students
were older than 18. They ran out, many in tears, while others were enraged as
they kicked and shook the front gate. My interpreter and I were surrounded by
frenzied students who yelled, "This is the democracy? This is the freedom? You
see what the Americans are doing to us here?"
Another student cried out to us, "They took several of my friends! Why are
they taking them to prison? For throwing rocks?" A few blocks away, we spoke
with a smaller group of students who had run from the school (in panic). One
student who was crying yelled to me, "Why are they doing this to us? We are
The tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles that were guarding the perimeter of
the school began to rumble down the street beside us, on their passage out.
Several young boys with tears streaming down their faces picked up stones and
hurled them at the tanks as they drove by. Imagine my horror when I saw the
U.S. soldiers on top of the Bradleys begin firing their M-16s above our heads
as we ducked inside a taxi. A soldier on another Bradley, behind the first,
passed and fired randomly above our heads as well. Kids and pedestrians ran
for cover into the shops and wherever possible.
I remember a little boy, not more than 13 years old, holding a stone and standing
at the edge of the street glaring at the Bradleys as they rumbled past. Another
soldier riding atop another passing Bradley pulled out his pistol and aimed
it at the boy's head and kept him in his sights until the vehicle rolled out
One of the students hiding behind our taxi screamed to me, "Who are the terrorists
here now? You have seen this yourself! We are school kids!"
The very next month, in January 2004, I was in an area on the outskirts of
Baghdad that had been pulverized by "Operation Iron Grip." I spoke with a man
at his small farm house. His three 3-year-old boy, Halaf Ziad Halaf, walked
up to me and with a worried
look on his face said, "I have seen the Americans here with their tanks.
They want to attack us."
His uncle, who had joined us for tea, leaned over to me and said, "The Americans
are creating the terrorists here by hurting people and causing their relatives
to fight against them. Even this little boy will grow up hating the Americans
because of their policy here."
The slaughter, starvation, detention, torture, and sexual assault of Iraq's
children at the hands of U.S. soldiers or by proxy via U.S. foreign policy,
is not a recent phenomenon. It is true that the present U.S. administration
has been brazen and blatant in its crimes in Iraq, but those willing to bear
witness must not forget that Bill Clinton and his minions played an equally,
if not even more devastating, role in the assault on the children of Iraq.
On May 12, 1996, Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked
by Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes about the effects of U.S. sanctions against
Iraq. "We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's
more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?"
In a response that has now become notorious, Albright replied, "I think this
is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it."
"We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our worst crime
is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many of the things
we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time his bones are being
formed, his blood is being made, and his senses are being developed. To him
we cannot answer 'Tomorrow.' His name is 'Today.'"
- Gabriela Mistral
To all Americans who, despite voluminous evidence
to the contrary, continue to believe that they are supporting a war for democracy
in Iraq, I would like to say, the way Iraq is headed it will have little use
for democracy and freedom. We must find ways to stop the immoral, soulless,
repugnant occupation if we want the children of Iraq to see any future at all.
This piece originally appeared on Truthout.org.