Despite UN Programs, Iraqis still Suffer under Embargo
An Oil-for-Food trade program has helped Iraq, but many of the country's children are still going hungry, and suffer of diseases Iraq never knew before the decade-long embargo, says Newsweek in a feature published Tuesday.
Following is the full text of the report:
At the Elwiyyah Pediatric Hospital in Baghdad, Dr. Muhammed al-Juborri shouts his way through an interview on malnutrition among small children in Iraq. "Before sanctions we never saw cases like this," he says. "Marasmus-oily skin, lack of calories and protein. Kwashiorkor-protein deficiency. Marasmus-kwashiorkor! This is because of the United States of America! They are the enemy of our people! Rickets, we have rickets now. We never had rickets before."
Al-Juborri may sound like a raving propagandist, but-at least about the state of Iraq's children-he's right. One in five Iraqi children under the age of five are chronically malnourished, according to independent UNICEF surveys, the most recent in 1999. "We had to teach doctors here how to treat it," said a UNICEF official. "The mortality rates that exist in Iraq [due to malnourishment] are comparable to those in Haiti," said Anu Pama Rao Singh, UNICEF's director in Baghdad and a veteran of African famine work, "and it will take a long time for the country to recover from it." The sad thing, she noted, is that "this is chronic malnutrition, which is extremely difficult to reverse, if not irreversible."
Al-Juborri puts it more forcefully. "The effect goes on and on. It affects their mind! They will be retarded! Maybe a little bit dwarfed! It will create many people in our community who are mentally subnormal! Even those who are not that badly affected will by stunted in their educational development. "If you are hungry you can't read! If you are hungry you can't write!"
Al-Juborri, a pediatrician, strides off on a tour of the nutritional intensive care unit that he runs at Elwiyyah hospital. This is a ward with two interconnected rooms, with a total of 19 beds-and twice as many patients. Since the patients are under five, that means four to a bed since in almost all cases their mothers stay with them in the hospital. The beds are narrow, single beds, with clean but faded sheets and blankets. The parents sleep on them in shifts, but after breakfast one recent morning everyone is awake. The mothers get a hot meal; the children a specially formulated gruel-often through nasal tubes-and a saline drip to combat dehydration. Most of the children are in arms, and there is no laughter or playfulness. One of the symptoms of chronic malnourishment is listlessness and depression. These are the worst cases, but by far not the only ones at this children's hospital in the heart of the capital. "Seventy percent of our outpatient clinic are malnourished," al-Juborri says.
The doctor strides between the beds, scattering nurses, in their white, British style uniforms, and orderlies, wearing gray frocks, before him, and stops suddenly in front of a tall woman wearing a scarf and holding a baby in her lap. "This one is in the pre-Kwashiorkor condition," he says. "Look at that!" The doctor pulls away the rags that half-swaddle Zahara Ibrahim, 19 months old; she weighs only 6 kilograms [13 pounds, 3 ounces], just over half what a healthy child would at that age. "Distended belly!" Kwashiorkor perversely gives its victims large bellies as their bodies start to consume their own protein in tissues, muscle and bone; they are in effect eating themselves alive. "And the hair is orange!" Another symptom; this child's hair has turned that color throughout. "And the hair comes right out!" And with that he tugs on a tuft of it, which separates from Zahara's scalp without even causing her pain, and holds it up like a trophy, a lock of orange hair. "I know this family, this is a very large, very poor family, they are 20 people in one house. And look at her." He indicates the child's mother, Khawla Hadi, 35, and grabs her face, squeezes her cheeks. "Look at how anemic she is." Her skin is pallid, almost yellow. "How can she take care of her children, she can't even feed herself."
Hadi says Zahara is the youngest of her five children. "All of them are hungry," she says. "Only this one is so bad."
Like all other Iraqis, Hadi and family receive a food basket paid for by the Oil for Food program administered in Iraq by the United Nations. Iraq is allowed to sell enough oil to buy food and other humanitarian goods and the UN monitors the distribution of that food to make sure it gets to its intended recipients. UN officials give Iraq high marks in conducting the program honestly and efficiently, and there is enough food being delivered monthly to provide every person with 2,400 calories-enough to survive and remain healthy. But the problem is that many people sell some of their food supply to get cash to pay for necessities. Even if people have jobs, salaries have dropped so low in real terms that $10 a month is considered a relatively good wage. Prices, on the other hand, are high, and $10 buys little.
Hadi's family is a good example. Last month, they sold five kilograms of sugar from their ration, and they ended up finishing their supplies on the 25th day of the month, she says. For the rest of the month, they went hungry. Some months are even worse, and of the 20 persons in their home, no one works. "Look at this child," says al-Juborri. "She has even lost the ability to focus, look at her eyes." Zahara is awake, but doesn't seem to notice anything around her. Bad as she seems, though, there is still hope that feeding will bring her back. But then she'll leave the hospital and be back on short rations at home. "People are too ashamed to come here for feeding," says the doctor. "We see them when they get sick, because with malnutrition the immune system is compromised. We don't have AIDS in Iraq. The AIDS of our country is malnutrition."
There is no doubt that sanctions have badly hurt the Iraqi people. Until 1996, there wasn't even oil for food program, and Iraq's only income was from smuggling - the proceeds of which did not find their way to most people. Since the program, malnutrition has stopped rising, and even in some ways improved. One common measurement for severe malnutrition, for example, is "stunting" (being smaller in weight and size than is age-appropriate) and, according to UNICEF, this has decreased from 27 percent to 20 percent in Iraqi children. But the situation is still dire and international officials say there's little hope for much improvement very soon. From 1994 to 1999, according to a World Health Organization study, the mortality rate for children under five in Iraq rose to 131 deaths for every 1,000 births-in other words, some 13 percent of children in Iraq can now expect to die before age five. Before sanctions, and the Gulf War, the mortality rate was less than half that, 56 deaths per 1000.
Of course, Iraq could end the sanctions by acceding to UN weapons inspections. Even short of that, which the Iraqis vow they will never do, they could use some of the immense resources developed outside of Oil for Food to help improve the nutritional lot of their people. Saddam Hussein is "responsible," said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns in 1996. "He's the leader of Iraq. If people are starving in his country, if their kids are in orphanages that don't have money-and we're very sensitive to that-he is responsible. And look where the money trail is with Saddam Hussein." US officials point to extensive palace building, and an opulent lifestyle by some top officials in the regime. "This is absolutely ridiculous," says Riyadh al Qaysi, Iraq's deputy foreign minister, in an interview with Newsweek. The palaces "are all built by internal Iraqi resources without a single [Oil for Food] dollar spent on them. We should stay idle, be depressed, and not rebuild what you have destroyed? Why should this be squandering resources? To the contrary, people are getting work on them and they are getting paid."
A PRINCELY SUM TURNED TO PENNIES
It isn't enough. At the Elwiyyah intensive care ward, the child who at the moment is probably in the worst shape is Muntader, a three-month old boy who has severe marasmus, a progressive wasting away of the body. In the boy's head is a connection for intravenous drip; it's the only place nurses could find a vein big enough to get a needle in. Muntader's family is not poor, normally, says his mother Hamdiyah Latif, 34. Her husband is a government clerical worker in the Ministry of Communications, who supplements his 15,000 dinar monthly salary with night work as a guard. Before sanctions, 15,000 dinars was a princely sum- each dinar was worth as much as $3.00. Now a dollar fetches 2,000 dinars, and bags of 250 dinar notes (the largest denomination) are needed to make the smallest purchases. The family is supporting 14 persons in all, and their monthly food basket has been lasting a mere 15 days, she says.
Latif says she didn't know that she could have registered for extra food for a newborn baby, and extra care for herself as well as a mother of a baby.
The doctor next stops in front of Zainab Abdu Zahara, who is mostly covered by a black chador; she recoils as if she's done something wrong as he looks at how much flesh there is on her wrist. "Skin and bones!" Examining her, he discovers she's four months pregnant. "These mothers are malnourished; you can imagine the child," he says. "She is only about 30 kg [66 pounds], she should be 50 [110 pounds]. The baby, the same! Only 4 kilos, should be 7.5." Her daughter Ayaat Naim, who is eight months old, is also suffering from rickets and anemia -common complications of severe malnourishment. Zainab herself is only 22, which means she was 12 when the international embargo was first imposed on Iraq in 1990; her husband has work, as a vegetable seller, but it hasn't helped the family diet much. "I don't remember what it's like not to be hungry," she says. "I've always been hungry." – Albawaba.com
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)