Robbed of childhood, bereft of a future

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Looking at photographs of Iraqi children maimed by the war makes the conflict unforgettable. Reflecting on the causes that led to that war makes it unforgivable. New information is steadily coming out on the effects of the war on children, and how it has affected not only their health but also their quality of life and prospects for the future.

One child dies every five minutes because of the war, and many more are left with severe injuries. Of the estimated 4 million Iraqis who have been displaced in Iraq or left the country, 1.5 million are children. For the most part, they don’t have access to basic health care, education, shelter, or water and sanitation. They carry on their shoulders the tragic consequences of an uncalled-for war.

Note this assessment by 100 British and Iraqi doctors: “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 and limbs are left without prostheses. Children with grave psychological distress are left untreated.”

Never mind that, according to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1483, both the United States and Britain are recognized as Iraq’s occupation powers and, as such, are bound by The Hague and Geneva conventions demanding that occupying powers are responsible not only for maintaining order but also for responding to the medical needs of the population.

In the meantime, malnutrition levels among children continue to increase, and they are now more than double what they were before the U.S. led invasion. Iraq’s malnutrition rates are now on a par with Burundi, a central African country torn by a brutal civil war, and higher than in Uganda and Haiti.

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.

Almost a third of the population — 8 million people — need emergency aid, and more than 4 million Iraqis depend on food assistance. The collapse of basic services affects the whole population. For example, 70 percent of Iraqis lack access to adequate water supplies and 80 percent lack effective sanitation. Both conditions breed 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 that might take years to solve,” warns Ahmed Obeid, a Health Ministry official.

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 this does not count what is euphemistically called “collateral damage” — the hundreds of children killed by roadside bombs, during suicide attacks or attacks by the occupation forces.

I look again at the face of an anonymous child photographed by Dan Chung for The Guardian. The features are burned almost beyond recognition. Sad eyes seem to ask the viewer, “What did I do to deserve this?” And I cannot but think how miserable those adults are who destroy children’s lives with total impunity.

Despite all evidence, some political leaders continue to insist that the situation is improving, as though the brutal TV images of the war did not exist, as if they were a fantasy invented by evil spirits. The chasm between the people’s view of reality and that of their leaders has rarely been greater.

The editor of The Lancet, Dr. Richard Horton, stated recently: “Our collective failure has been to take our political leaders at their word.”

Yet, Republican presidential contender Sen. John McCain, speaking to cadets at the Virginia Military Institute, affirmed that to continue the war is to pursue the right road, and “it is necessary and just.” The above facts show that it is neither.

Cesar Chelala, a cowinner of an Overseas Press Club of America award, is the foreign correspondent for the Middle East Times International (Australia).