Despair Is Deep in Post-War Iraq

Shortages, high prices, unemployment take toll on families throughout battered nation

DRASTICALLY impoverished by the Gulf war and economic embargo, weakened by malnutrition and disease, and fearful of renewed attacks by coalition forces, many Iraqis are giving way to despair.This is evident in conversations with scores of Iraqis in Baghdad and interviews with international relief workers who have been traveling and working in other parts of the country. "We feel we cannot take more wars and deaths. But I do not really see a big difference between a reeruption of war and the continuation of the current conditions.... Both will lead to our death," says Marlyn, a 25-year-old employee at one of Baghdad's hotels who lost a brother and a cousin during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war and another cousin in the Gulf war. Iraqi officials say that 11,000 people, mostly women and children, have died from malnutrition and water-borne diseases due to the destruction of electric and water-purification plants in allied bombing raids. Relief workers are unable to confirm the official figure but predict mass deaths if the country's needs for medicine and food are not met immediately. United Nations agencies and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) warn of impending famine as cases of moderate and severe malnutrition are reported across the country.

Making ends meet "We are seeing distressing signs of people selling their belongings and cases of malnutrition," says Ezio Gianni Murzi, a doctor with UNICEF in Baghdad. Dr. Murzi predicts famine of "the kind that Europe had suffered from after World War II." A United Nations committee recommended last week that Iraq be allowed to sell its oil and use part of its frozen assets in the West to buy food and medicine. At this stage the UN and some 20 NGOs working here are spending $200 million, excluding salaries and other logistical support, to provide Iraq with food and medicine. According to the UN, Iraq needs at least $2 billion to cover its immediate food needs alone. Thus the relief program covers barely 5 percent to 6 percent of the Iraq's needs. NGO officials warn, however, that their relief programs are inadequate. Even allocation of more money for the relief programs, some NGO officials argue, will not be sufficient and may be used by the US and others to justify prolonging the sanctions. "The danger is that the existence of the relief program will be used as an excuse to keep the sanctions. The relief program simply cannot become a long-term welfare program," cautions Jim Fine, a representative of the Quaker relief organization here. Malnutrition is caused by shortages of basic foodstuffs, especially milk and baby formula, high prices, and a sharp decline in Iraqis' purchasing power. The urban middle class is seeing a significant decline in its standard of living, while the poor hover on the verge of starvation. Many families are selling personal belongings - jewelry and electronics - and have cut their daily diet to the minimum. Mahmoud, a music teacher has taken on three other part-time jobs, to secure food for his seven-member family. Although Mahmoud earns 1,000 Iraqi dinars a month - $3,000 at the official rate of exchange, but less than $200 at black-market prices - he considers himself "well off." Yet, after paying the rent, he is only able to provide the minimum needs of his family. The vast majority of Iraqis have to survive on much less. Those civil servants who remain employed earn a fixed salary of 150 to 200 dinars a month.

Food prices skyrocket In the working class area of Doura, which was heavily bombed because a nearby oil refinery was a coalition target, a 10-member family is trying to make do on 400 dinars earned by the father and two sons. "We can only eat meat once every week or 10 days.... and forget about milk and eggs for the children, says Aboud Yass, the 61-year old father. "Thank God we are still better off than others ... We have been drawing on our savings and there is nothing left. I cannot even imagine how we can survive after one month." The price of one kilo of meat has risen from less than four dinars to 16 dinars, while an egg costs half a dinar. News of possible renewed allied bombing has caused a further increase in prices. Over the weekend, sugar, along with other commodities disappeared from the market forcing government departments to stop serving tea to their employees. According to the World Food Program, an average Iraqi family of six, will need to spend between 300 and 400 Iraqi dinars on food alone to secure the minimum dietary needs for survival. The government is still subsidizing staples, but the amounts available have been reduced. Relief workers and Iraqi doctors say that the subsidized rations provide a third to a half of an individual's daily dietary needs.

Doctors in despair Naderah Madkouk, a 32-year-old mother from the working-class Al Ashoula area, says that her 10-member family lives on limited amounts of rice, potatoes, bread, and tomato sauce. She has just given birth to her eighth baby, and she is not sure how her husband, who earns 90 dinars a month, can provide baby formula for the child. "The same time last year we used to live much better on the same salary. We were able to eat meat and even get the children Nestle [chocolate]," she says. Nurses at the Saddam Teaching Hospital for Children, the country's leading pediatric center, say the emergency section receives more than 70 children a day suffering from dehydration, malnutrition, and illnesses. At a smaller hospital in Al Shoula, doctors complain of severe shortages of medicine, syringes, chemical agents for laboratory tests, and spare parts and films for X-rays. The doctors are most alarmed by the rapid deterioration of hygiene as the hospitals are surrounded by swamps of garbage heaps and sewage water. "The hospital was flooded with sewage water yesterday," says Dr. Hassan Skafai, the hospital's director last Tuesday. The air conditioners do not work, and the old-fashioned fans provide little relief from the sweltering 100-degree heat. A Harvard University medical team in May projected that a combination of malnutrition and infection among children under five may lead to the death of more than 175,000 children by August. Relief workers who have visited hospitals around the country say a growing number of women, especially outside Baghdad, have been sustaining their infants on sugar and water only. The deteriorating living conditions have left many Iraqi civilians feeling trapped by factors beyond their control. "We no longer live. We simply exist," says Inaam Ahmad, who lost her six-year-old daughter in the coalition bombing.

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