Years of War Wrack Iraqi Families

War widows, demobilized soldiers, students face uncertain future in a battered society

'WE were planning to start our lives as soon as he was demobilized. Travel a bit; have another baby," the gray-faced young girl weeps, her head bowed to hide the tears. "All his life he has been in the Army, first against Iran and then against America." Fatima is one of Iraq's latest crop of widows, one of a whole generation of women who wear black because of the near decade of wars launched by President Saddam Hussein. Her husband, Hassan, was 31 years old when he died on the road from Kuwait to Baghdad. He had been in the Army six years, ever since he left agricultural college, where he met and married Fatima.

The young widow's grief is compounded by the fact that her husband was killed on the last day of the war, in what must have been one of the last allied bombing raids on withdrawing Iraqi troops. Abandoned by his officers, he was trudging the 400 miles home on foot, when he was killed along with four friends.

"I haven't told my son yet," Fatima says. Feisel is 5. "We've told him Mr. Bush took him away in an airplane. Do you think he will understand death?"

Too many families in Iraq have had to understand death in the last decade. According to Western estimates (none have been published in Iraq), some half million deaths resulted from the eight-year-long war with Iran, another 150,000 from the Gulf war, and another 80,000 from the rebellions which followed it. Figures for those injured or maimed run much higher.

Coming home

For those who have survived the conflict, coming home is proving to be a trauma with which many cannot cope.

Since the defeat in the Gulf, tens of thousands of soldiers have been demobilized by Saddam. Large numbers of them return to prospects of long-term unemployment and bachelorhood.

Many have returned in mental turmoil over the wars they have served in. For those in their 30s, Saddam's current demobilization marks the beginning of their civilian lives for the first time since they left school or graduated.

Civilian doctors and social workers, meanwhile, are trying to patch together lives torn apart by Saddam's wars.

"Many of the men are angry and are taking it out on their wives and families," says a doctor in Baghdad, who is too frightened to be identified by name. "Women come to us and say: 'This is not my son anymore,' or 'This is not my husband. Please make him like before.' But the men aren't the same."

Sociologists say there has been an unprecedented wave of crime in the capital and an increase in violence within families. Divorce is soaring. From prewar levels of 14 percent, now more than one-fifth of Iraqi marriages end in divorce. Ehsan Hassan of Baghdad University says that men are returning from the front finding they exert little authority over their wives and children. "They sit around and complain about their children's behavior, and the children run to the mother, and the result, far too oft e

n, is rows," Dr. Hassan says.

Psychiatrists say the feelings of isolation and anger are understandable.

"You in the West think that Iraqi soldiers are battle-hardened. They are not; they are battle-defeated. The Iraqi soldier is the most miserable in the world," says a doctor treating former POWs and soldiers.

"The Western papers write that he is a monster. He is not," the doctor continues. "The truth is that he is very miserable. He has spent years as an animal. He is humiliated. It's not surprising they feel angry and isolated."

For those unmarried conscripts taken straight from school, the threat of unemployment looms large. Job prospects in the private sector look dim, with the freezing of economic activity because of international sanctions against Iraq.

Too poor to settle down

Moreover, after years of earning a salary of $20 or less a month, marriage prospects look distant to say the least. Dowries currently average 5,000 Iraqi dinars (the equivalent of $1,000, at unofficial exchange rates). Rampant inflation because of the sanctions has left many families struggling to pay food bills, let alone wedding bills. The demobilization, therefore, seems unlikely to diminish the growing ranks of unwed women in Iraq.

The wars have left the country with a population imbalance that has sent Iraqi mothers into a panic about finding husbands for their daughters. Officials of the ruling Baath Party deny there is any imbalance at all. "The wars have only adjusted what was a previous imbalance in favor of men," claims Haifa Takriti of the Iraqi Women's Federation.

The current crime wave in the capital is being blamed on another group of returning soldiers: deserters.

Said to number tens of thousands, the deserters still view with suspicion Saddam's offer of an amnesty. For those who refused to fight in Kuwait, the end of the war has meant a life in hiding or a move away to another city. Barred from returning to old jobs or finding new ones, many have taken to crime to survive. Baghdad residents were shocked last week to hear of the murder of an elderly retired schoolteacher in her home, killed for $400.

"We never had crimes like this before," Dr. Hassan said.

Iraq's current crop of students should, in theory, be the first in 10 years to face a future free of the prospect of having to fight and die in a war. But mandatory military service still faces them, and fears are mounting that rising rhetoric against Iran may bring on another conflict. University professors say many of their students are failing exams on purpose to put off the day when they have to enter the Army.

Military service can be of indefinite length. Says one taxi-driver whose son faces military service next year, "If it was one or two years, it would be all right. The problem is not knowing. How can you plan your life when you don't know how long the Army is going to keep you?"

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