Violence Haunts Iraq's Youngest Victims Of War

Headmistress of school for children who've lost at least one parent with orphaned students i i

Asma Karim (far left), headmistress at a primary school in Baghdad for children who have lost at least one parent, sits with students in March 2008. Iraq lacks the resources to take care of children left orphaned by its brutal civil war and ongoing insurgency. Karim Kadim/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Karim Kadim/AP
Headmistress of school for children who've lost at least one parent with orphaned students

Asma Karim (far left), headmistress at a primary school in Baghdad for children who have lost at least one parent, sits with students in March 2008. Iraq lacks the resources to take care of children left orphaned by its brutal civil war and ongoing insurgency.

Karim Kadim/AP

The war in Iraq has taken a heavy toll on children, many of whom saw their own family members kidnapped, tortured and executed during the brutal sectarian fighting from 2006 to 2008.

More recently, orphanages are filling up with children left without parents after attacks from insurgent groups, including al-Qaida.

But there are very few services for Iraq's estimated 4 million to 6 million orphans. Plans to open the country's first ever child-psychiatry clinic have been approved. But the project has stalled because there is still no government amid political wrangling after the March election.

Life After Traumatic Loss

Hamid Abid Ali is a handsome little 12-year-old, all freckles and teeth and shiny brown hair. But he also has scabs on the side of his face, from picking and scratching when he gets nervous or sad.

Hamid says his mother went out for a walk one day 2 1/2 years ago and ended up in a hostile neighborhood of Baghdad. A few days later, the phone rang in Hamid's house.

"Are you Sunni or Shiite?" the caller asked. Hamid's father didn't answer.

Iraqi social worker teachers orphans in Baghdad's Sadr City i i

An Iraqi social worker teaches children at Beit Al-Iraq Al-Amen orphanage in Baghdad's Sadr City district in November 2007. Wissam Al-Okaili/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Wissam Al-Okaili/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi social worker teachers orphans in Baghdad's Sadr City

An Iraqi social worker teaches children at Beit Al-Iraq Al-Amen orphanage in Baghdad's Sadr City district in November 2007.

Wissam Al-Okaili/AFP/Getty Images

"Well, if you don't come to pick up your wife, we'll blow her up with the other Shiites," the voice continued.

A few days later, that's exactly what they did. Hamid's relatives told Hamid that terrorists strapped a suicide vest to his mother and detonated it.

"My father, who has asthma, was crying so much from the loss of my mother. He went outside and he couldn't stand the dust. They took him to the hospital but there was nothing they could do. And he died," Hamid recalls.

Now Hamid lives at the Al-Jawad Compound for Orphans, an orphanage in northern Baghdad. Opened four years ago, it's run by the foundation of Hussein al-Sadr, a well-respected Shiite cleric.

Hamid says he is happy at the orphanage. He can play and laugh with his friends. But at night, when he's alone, he says, he cries himself to sleep.

Trying To Forget

Bershan Adel, 17, also has trouble sleeping. He watched as insurgents kidnapped his father, mother and brother. He never saw them again.

Bershan's answers are flat, and his face is deadpan. He says he doesn't even really miss his parents. The orphanage's director, Abu Jaafar, says the boy has a violent streak, that he hits other kids and calls them names.

"So whenever we see him in such situations, of course we do follow certain techniques, just to absorb his anger, for instance, either to embrace him, to have him in our lap, or sometimes we bring a story or certain chanting with him, just to make him think of something else, just to ease him down, just to absorb his anger," Jaafar says.

For some Iraqis, this is the way to deal with trauma: When something bad happens, the best thing to do is try to forget it.

But there's another reason for why some children aren't dealing with the violence: because there's no one who's trained to help them do it. The director himself has a military background. He admits that his staff lack the proper education, and that an orphanage that serves 60 children is barely scratching the surface in a country where millions of children have lost their parents to violence.

Creating 'A Million Saddams'

One place where children can seek treatment is a ward at the government-run Central Hospital for Children in Baghdad's Iskan neighborhood. It is headed by Haidar al-Maliki, one of only a handful of child psychiatrists in the country.

Children come to the hospital for evaluations, therapy and sometimes drugs.

Maliki's own research suggests that nearly three-quarters of Iraq's children suffer from symptoms related to post traumatic stress disorder. He says violence is so commonplace that people have come to think it's normal.

"Our children and even our families have adapted to the situation. It is OK for them to see [someone] killed or injured or threatened, and after [a] few minutes, everything is returned normal," he says.

The plan is for Maliki to train more psychiatrists and counselors and open a separate clinic exclusively for child psychiatry. The government has approved the new clinic but not the funding.

Maliki says the money is on hold because Iraq's political leaders still haven't formed a government, even though it's been five months since parliamentary elections. Results were so close that the parties can't agree on who should be prime minister.

Maliki says the more children suppress their experiences, the worse off society will be.

He says that in 10 to 15 years, when these children grow to be adults, they will be a "violent population."

I've said it many times, but I'll say it again, Maliki says: "With this war, you got rid of one Saddam. But you created a million Saddams."

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