Violence Haunts Iraq's Youngest Victims Of War 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. But there are few services for the country's estimated 4 million to 6 million orphans, and plans to open Iraq's first child-psychiatry clinic have stalled.
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Violence Haunts Iraq's Youngest Victims Of War

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Violence Haunts Iraq's Youngest Victims Of War

Violence Haunts Iraq's Youngest Victims Of War

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Iraq is only now starting to come to terms with the war's most brutal period of sectarian violence. Some call it the civil war from 2006 to 2008. Many children during that time saw their only family members kidnapped, tortured and executed. Most recently, orphanages are filling up with children orphaned by attacks from insurgent groups like al-Qaida.

NPR's Kelly McEvers reports from Baghdad.

KELLY McEVERS: 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.

Mr. HAMID ABID ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: Hamid says his mother went out for a walk one day, 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 said. Hamid's father didn't answer. Well, if you don't come to pick up your wife, we'll blow her up with the other Shiites. 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.

Mr. ALI: (Through translator) 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 to help him, and he died.

MCEVERS: Now, Hamid lives at this orphanage in north Baghdad. It was opened four years ago by a well-respected Shiite cleric.

Mr. ALI: (Foreign language spoken)

McEVERS: Ah, that's the barbershop.

Unidentified Man: Exactly.

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

Mr. BERSHAN ADEL: (Foreign language spoken)

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

Mr. ABU JAAFAR (Director, Al-Jawad Compound for Orphans): (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. ADEL: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. JAAFAR: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. BERSHAN ADEL: (Foreign language spoken)

MARTIN: Bershan's answers are flat, his face deadpan. He says he doesn't even really miss his parents.

After Bershan leaves the office, orphanage director Abu Jaafar tells us the boy has a violent streak, that he hits other kids and calls them names.

Mr. JAAFAR: (Through translator) So whenever we see him in such situations, of course, we do follow certain techniques, or we just absorb his anger. For instance, either to embrace him, to have him in our lap, or sometimes we bring a story or a certain chanting with him, just to make him think of something else, just to ease him down, just to absorb his anger.

McEVERS: In some ways, this is the way you deal with things here, Iraqis say. When something bad happens, the best thing to do is try and forget it.

But in other ways, the kids here 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 his staff lacks the proper education, and that an orphanage that serves 60 kids is barely scratching the surface in a country where millions of children lost their parents to violence.

(Soundbite of crying)

McEVERS: One place where children can seek treatment is this ward in the government-run Central Hospital. It's headed by Haidar al-Maliki, one of only a handful of child psychiatrists in the whole country. Children come here 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 here, people have come to think it's normal.

Dr. HAIDAR AL-MALIKI (Child Psychiatrist, Central Hospital for Children): Our children have, even our families have adapted to the situation. It's okay for them to see some of them being killed or injured or threatened. And after a few minutes, everything is returned to normal.

McEVERS: The plan is for Maliki to train more psychiatrists and counselors, and open a separate clinic just for child psychiatry. The new clinic has been approved by the government, but the funding has yet to come through. Maliki says the more children suppress their experiences, the worse off society will be.

Dr. MALIKI: So we think, our generation, there will be - after 10 to 15 years, when they're grown to adults, they will be a violent population.

McEVERS: 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.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.

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