By Dr. Cesar Chelala
13/01/08 "ICH" --- NEW YORK—The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has painted a dramatic picture of the situation of children in Iraq and warned that increased assistance is needed to improve their dire situation.
According to UNICEF, an estimated two million children suffer from poor nutrition, disease, and interrupted education. One child dies every five minutes because of the war, and many more are left with severe injuries.
Of the estimated four million Iraqis who have been internally displaced or who have left the country, one and a half million are children. For the most part, those remaining don't have access to basic health care, education, shelter, potable water, and sanitation.
Sick or injured children, who could otherwise be treated by simple means, are left to die in the hundreds because they don't have access to basic medicines or other resources.
Children who have lost hands, feet, or other limbs are left without prostheses. Children with grave psychological distress are left untreated. This is the assessment of 100 British and Iraqi physicians.
An Iraqi girl fills a tin with drinking water from a water pipe crossing an uncovered sewage canal at the area of Fdailiyah southeast of Baghdad. Many of Baghdad's neighborhoods lack essential infrastructure such as power and clean water. (Wissam Al-Okaili/AFP/Getty Images)According to UN Security Council Resolution 1483, both the United States and Great Britain are recognized as Iraq's occupying powers and as such are bound by The Hague and Geneva Conventions that demand that they be responsible not only for maintaining order, but also for responding to the medical needs of the population.
The number of Iraqi children who are born underweight or suffer from malnutrition continues to rise and is now higher than before the U.S.-led invasion, according to a report by OXFAM and 80 other aid agencies.
Iraqi children's malnutrition rates are on a par with Burundi, a central African country torn by a brutal civil war, and higher than Uganda and Bolivia. Almost a third of the population, 8 million people, needs emergency aid, and more than four million Iraqis depend on food assistance.
The collapse of basic services affects the whole population. Seventy percent of Iraqis lack access to adequate water supplies and 80 percent lack effective sanitation, both conditions breeding grounds for a parallel increase in intestinal and respiratory infections that predominantly affect children.
Children are dying every day because of lack of essential medical support. The bad sewage system and lack of purified water, particularly in suburbs, has been a serious problem which might take years to solve, said Ahmed Obeid, an official at the Ministry of Health.
Lack of drinkable water and adequate sanitation significantly worsens the cholera epidemic now facing the country. While in developed countries cholera can be easily treated, in countries at war it can kill children in a few hours.
At the same time, a variety of environmentally-related chronic diseases are emerging among children due to their exposure to environmental contaminants. Many cases of congenital malformations and cancer among children are believed to be the consequence of exposure to chemicals and radioactive materials that have significantly increased during the war.
And then there is what is euphemistically called "collateral damage," the hundreds of children killed by roadside bombs during suicide attacks or attacks by the occupation forces.
Last February, the Association of Psychologists of Iraq (API) released a report addressing the effect of the war on the psychological development of Iraqi children. More than 1,000 children were interviewed countrywide for the report. Among the children examined, 92 percent had learning impediments, mostly attributable to the climate of fear and insecurity.
"The only thing [children] have on their minds are guns, bullets, death, and a fear of the U.S. occupation," said Maruan Abdullah, the API spokesman.
Equally tragic is the fate of children affected by serious diseases, some of whom have been abandoned by their parents, unable to take care of them, as reported by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
According to a local non-governmental organization, Keeping the Children Alive (KCA), over 700 children have been abandoned by their parents in Baghdad alone since January 2006. Many among them end up living on the streets, part of the 1.6 million children under the age of 12 who have become homeless in Iraq, according to Iraq's Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.
Despite all evidence, some political leaders continue to insist that the situation in Iraq is improving, as though the brutal TV images of the war were part of the collective imagination, as if the continuous carnage in Iraq's main cities had truly stopped.
The chasm between the people's view of reality and that of their leaders has rarely been greater. That those who pay the highest price are innocent children is the most severe indictment against the war.
Cesar Chelala, a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award, is the foreign correspondent for the Middle East Times International (Australia).