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Iraqi orphans’ ordeal: Who’s to blame?

Posted By Ahmed Abdullah 

The heart-breaking pictures of severely malnourished children found at a state-run Baghdad orphanage last week revealed the inability of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government to care for its most vulnerable citizens. 

Ironically, the orphanage name is "al-Hanan", meaning tenderness in English. But the treatment of the poor orphans who have been living there cannot by any means be related to the word. The 24 boys - most of whom are mentally handicapped and aged 3-15 - were found on June 10 by a U.S. military advisory team that was out on patrol with Iraqi soldiers. Images broadcast by CBS News showed some of the orphans tied to their beds, others covered in their own waste, and some appearing, at first glance, to be dead. 

"They saw multiple bodies laying on the floor of the facility," Staff Sergeant Mitchell Gibson of the 82nd Airborne Division told CBS News. "They thought they were all dead, so they threw a basketball [to] try and get some attention...And actually one of the kids lifted up his head, tilted it over and just looked and then went back down." 

Gibson added that one of the boys had "thousands of flies covering his body, unable to move any part of his body, you know we had to actually hold his head up and tilt his head to make sure that he was okay... The only thing basically that was moving was his eyeballs. Flies in the mouth, in the eyes, in the nose, ears, eating all the open wounds from sleeping on the concrete."

Another member of the patrol, Lt Stephen Duperre, described the discovery as devastating. "The kids were tied up, naked, covered in their own waste, faeces". He said they also found a kitchen inside the orphanage that was full of food and a storeroom stocked with brand-new clothes that the soldiers believe were being sold to local markets instead of giving them to the disabled children. 

The case has infuriated parents of the children. "If we were living in a normal country, I would have sued these criminals," said the father of two of the boys. "But we are living in complete chaos," he added. 

The father, who refused to be identified, left his children in the orphanage after becoming a displaced person nearly two years ago. "What can we do? They became a heavy burden on us. We decided to send them there and we still can't take them back because of our harsh living conditions," he said.

The orphanage's caretaker, who had a well-kept office, and two women employees have disappeared after the discovery. But two security guards have been arrested on the orders of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. 

The severely disabled children have since been moved to another clean, well-lit orphanage in Baghdad, with smiling social workers, sun-drenched rooms and stuffed animals. 

But the socking discovery underscored the breakdown of social services and family structure in a country ravaged by a devastating war. 

"Iraq has never been a more difficult and dangerous place to be a child," UNICEF said in a statement last week. "The ongoing conflict and displacement are now putting the welfare of all children at risk, particularly orphans. Families struggling to feed and educate their own children are increasingly unable to take on others,” it added. 

UNICEF also listed several problems concerning Iraqi children, including a serious decline in immunizations, signs of stunted growth for "one in five Iraqi children," falling education rates, less pre-natal and obstetric care, and children "orphaned by violence almost daily." 

Realizing the plight of helpless orphans who have no one to depend on, many Iraqi volunteers have begun providing vital social services at their own expense, relying on the generosity of friends and neighbors. In Baghdad, the only thing that keeps orphans alive is the kindness of civilians, according to an article on AFP. 

Husham Hassan, a 37-year-old Iraqi volunteer, cares for around 30 orphans in a home funded by private donations in Sadr City, a Shia district in northeast Baghdad controlled by the political movement of prominent cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. 

Before opening the "Safety House," Hassan worked for another private organization established in 2003 to care for Baghdad's orphans. But that organization has been forced to close for financial reasons four months ago, and Hassan had to open his own facility with funds collected from friends and neighbors. His orphanage is clean, and the children there – aged five to sixteen – are active and healthy. Iraqi volunteers teach the children reading and math, play with them, sew their clothes and prepare meals.

"I am in charge of sport activities and sometimes give the kids lessons in reading and mathematics," said Salim Hassan. "I volunteered to serve these children without any charge. I regard myself as their father and I have good relations with them. They are just like sons."

Husham Hassan says he turned to the local community for help, collecting donations from Sadr City’s tribal families because the government failed to help him. "When I opened this house four months ago, I did my best to get support from the government through writing appeals and requests...I even invited them to visit on some occasions, but I received no response."

Ali Sumaysum, a tribal chief, says “We are supporting the house with material and moral support. We are providing security, food, clothes and all the other things that the kids need.” 

According to Hassan, some of the children he cares for have lost their parents to the war, but the majority have been orphaned by divorce, with the collapse of Iraqi society replicating itself in an increasing number of broken homes. 

His comments raise a serious question: Who’s to blame for the orphans’ ordeal? The negligence of the Iraqi government, or the unjustified U.S. invasion that degraded the lives of Iraqis in every possible way?

 

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