Issue of May, 05, 2003
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Iraqi Children - The War Generation
By Francesca Colombo

Iraqi children suffer an "innate" fear, say experts. Now the psychological traumas caused by the second Gulf War are leaving them with even more scars, and a potentially long road to recovery.

ROME, (Tierramérica).- Mahadi, 15, and his brother Fadel, 5, were walking down a street in Hillah south of Baghdad, when they were caught in a bombardment. Fadel jumped into Mahadi's arms, but shrapnel from an explosion hit him in the back. He died as his big brother raced desperately to the nearest hospital.

Mahadi survived the bombings of the U.S.-led attack against Iraq that began March 20, but he cannot be considered "safe and sound". Like hundreds, or even thousands, of Iraqi children, he faces a long road of recovery, a process to free himself from the nightmares and anxiety caused by war.

Roberto Bertolini, technical director for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Europe, explained to Tierramérica that the psychological impact on children like Mahadi will be great, as will "the stress from the bombardments and the mourning of relatives who died. The family is the basis of the psycho-dynamic context in which children grow and develop."

A Canadian study conducted after the first Persian Gulf War (1991), when the United States led a coalition of 34 countries to force Iraq out of neighboring Kuwait, found signs of deep-seated fear among girls and boys -- and particularly those ages five, seven and 11 -- who have continued to experience panic in the years since.

"Their sleep is disturbed, they behave more childlike than their peers, they have difficulty concentrating and learning. They suffer depression and live with permanent sadness," says Fabio Sbattella, professor of psychology at the Catholic University of Milan.

Ali was three years old when his father died during the first Gulf War. Over the next four years he visited his father's grave to implore, "Get up! The people who hurt you have gone."

"These children don't have the energy or the imagination to play, they don't feel like doing anything. They dream that the soldiers enter their homes and take away their parents," Antonello Saccetti, of the non-governmental group Save the Children, told Tierramérica. Saccetti has served as a humanitarian aid worker in Iraq since 1991.

The Iraqi population is young. Half of its 20 million people are under age 18, and children under five number 3.5 million.

According to the WHO and UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund), Iraq is among the 32 countries with worst living conditions for children: one out of eight dies before reaching age five, a third of the minor population suffers malnutrition, a quarter are born underweight, and a quarter do not have access to clean drinking water.

Mohammed has not forgotten the terror he felt when U.S. and British bombs and missiles began falling on Baghdad in March. His family huddled together in one room and nobody left because if death came, they wanted to be together. He has yet to have a peaceful night's sleep. In his dreams he continues to hear the air-raid sirens.

Weeks before the U.S. attacked Iraq, a team from Caritas International visited the country and gathered testimonies form youths and children about the impending war. Half said they thought frequently about death.

Ziad is 17 and is part of the "war generation", as Iraqi psychologists have dubbed it.

The first Gulf War changed his life and that of his two siblings in one fell swoop. Their father died and their mother became ill and died eight months later. Because they had no other relatives they ended up in an orphanage.

A study conducted in December 2002 by a Norwegian team specializing in childhood trauma found that Iraqi girls and boys have an "innate" fear and feel "as if they are constantly in danger."

Obviously those who suffered injuries or have been left disabled as a result of the war are the most affected by it. "For them, recovery is much more difficult. But not impossible," says Robert Salvan, UNICEF director in Italy.

Most of these children will overcome these horrors after several years, but there are some who will be traumatized for life.

"During the first few months it seems as if all is normal. Then, at around six months, the troubles begin. In three years they can completely recover, but 20 percent suffer anxiety and bad memories for many years," said psychologist Sbattella.

An important part of the recovery process is to live in surroundings that satisfy the child's basic needs.

WHO official Bertolini explains that "it is essential to reconstruct the social fabric, to identify relatives who can take care of the children, and create better situations in the schools, because all of this can mitigate the negative impacts. This is one of the priorities in the process of rebuilding Iraq."

* Francesca Colombo is a Tierramérica contributing writer.

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