The unending humanitarian nightmare

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — In August 2002, Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, wrote a prescient article in The Wall Street Journal warning of the dire consequences of invading Iraq. His predictions are confirmed in a new report by Oxfam, the British aid agency and NCCI, a network of aid organizations working in Iraq.

The report, “Rising to the Humanitarian Challenge in Iraq,” states that Iraq is undergoing a huge humanitarian crisis, with 8 million Iraqis — nearly one in three — in need of emergency aid. The lack of response to this situation threatens to open the country to total chaos.

According to Jeremy Hobbs, director of Oxfam International: “The terrible violence in Iraq has masked the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Malnutrition among children has dramatically increased, and basic services, ruined by years of wars and sanctions, cannot meet the needs of the Iraqi people. Millions of Iraqis have been forced to flee the violence, either to another part of Iraq or abroad. Many of those are living in dire poverty.”

It is estimated that 28 percent of children are malnourished, compared with 19 percent before the 2003 invasion. In 2006, more than 11 percent of newborn babies were born underweight, compared with 4 percent in 2003. Malnutrition contributes to death from other conditions such as intestinal and respiratory infections, malaria and typhoid. But the suffering doesn’t end there: 92 percent of Iraqi children have learning problems, a situation exacerbated by the widespread climate of fear in the country.

Last year, the Association of Psychologists of Iraq (API) released a report stating that the U.S.-led invasion has harmed the psychological development of Iraqi children. API spokesman, Maruan Abdullah said, “The only things [the children] have on their minds are guns, bullets, death and fear of the U.S. occupation.”

What can one say to those who are responsible for the destruction of children’s lives and hopes?

Those unable to stand the situation any longer have fled in terror to other parts of the country or to neighboring countries, which have seen their health and social services overwhelmed by the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

According to U.N. officials, 2,000 Iraqis flee their homes every day, and already 2 million have become internally displaced persons. In addition, 2.2 million have become refugees in other countries, mainly in Jordan and Syria. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) has received scant help from the world community to deal with this emergency. As the situation continues to worsen steadily, reports have surfaced that the Iraqi government is unable to spend funds at the necessary speed.

To make matters even worse, UNHCR is seeking urgent clarification from Turkish authorities on reports that more than 100 Iraqis — some of whom were seeking asylum — have been forcibly returned to their country. As UNHCR has stated, “If this is confirmed, the deportations would be a clear violation of the principle . . . under which no refugee or asylum seeker whose case has not yet been properly assessed, can be forcibly returned to a country where their life or liberty may be at risk.”

The lack of food affects not only children. An estimated 4 million Iraqis — 15 percent of the total population — regularly cannot buy enough to eat, and now depend on food assistance. Of those, only 60 percent have access to rations through the government-run Public Distribution System, down from 96 percent in 2004.

Seventy percent of the people are without adequate water supplies and 80 percent lack adequate sanitation. Dr. Abdul-Rahman Adil Ali of the Baghdad Health Directorate has warned of the serious consequences of exposure to defective sewage disposal systems. “In some of Baghdad’s poor neighborhoods,” he said, “people drink water that is mixed with sewage.”

Hospitals are unable to respond to people’s needs. Ninety percent of hospitals lack essential resources such as basic medical and surgical supplies. Most international aid agencies have left the country, a situation compounded by the emigration of qualified personnel.

Of 34,000 doctors living in the country in 2003, 12,000 have emigrated and more than 2,000 have been murdered. Only a few aid agencies carry on a valiant and necessary work.

The war is not only affecting Iraqis. The nonpartisan U.S. Congressional Budget Office has issued a report to lawmakers stating that the war could ultimately cost the U.S. government well over a trillion dollars — at least double of what has already been spent. That will happen even under the best conditions — an immediate and substantial reduction of troops — and impact American taxpayers for at least the next decade.

What is urgently needed is an adequate response to this emergency situation, which is affecting most of the country’s population. It is crucial to improve the mechanism for distributing food and medicines to the population, and to support the work of agencies like UNICEF.

At the same time, API has urged the international community to help establish specialized centers and programs devoted to children’s mental health. Bush has talked of total victory in Iraq. With the way things are going, it looks more like a defeat for humanity.

Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and cowinner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.