The Desperate Acts Of Ordinary Iraqis

Farmers prosper under sanctions, but most in Baghdad must face nights of fear and days of hunger

tHE Khadissiya hospital, sprawling along a rubbish-strewn boulevard in Saddam City, Baghdad's poorest slum, was perhaps never the world's most attractive health facility.

But in former days, its patients and staff could at least enjoy the grassy lawn and flowering shrubs that grew in the hospital's courtyard, offering a respite from the dreary institutional wards.

Not any more. Today, Iraq's economy crushed by international sanctions, the garden has been torn up in the interests of self-sufficiency. Where bougainvillea and hibiscus once bloomed, okra, eggplant, and zucchini now wilt under a ferocious sun.

Inside, Maryam Fakhran, a slack infant in the emergency ward, lies dehydrated. The facility is desperately short of supplies, but what Maryam most lacks is a decent diet. Her mother, Nejaat, cannot afford to buy her milk, nor can she feed her herself, as she is subsisting only on bread, rice, and vegetables. Asked when she last ate meat, she laughs bitterly, and cannot remember.

Nejaat once lived in a rented home. Now broke, she has moved with her husband, a construction worker, and seven children into a relative's house. Nejaat may be at the bottom of Iraqi society, but more and more families are joining her there, as hyperinflation pauperizes people who used to be able to get by, including the once-comfortable professional classes.

Prices fluctuate wildly in Iraq, as does the value of the United States dollar on the universally used black market, depending on the political news.

When fears of another bombing raid sweep Baghdad, merchants raise their prices. When the government reached an agreement with the United Nations July 19 on long-term monitoring of its weapons program, averting the threat of attack, prices cooled off a little.

But inexorably, the price spiral rises, forcing ordinary Iraqis into desperate acts. One university professor has survived only by selling, one by one, the carpets he inherited from his father and the gold jewelry his children were given, according to the Iraqi custom, at their birth. @BODYTEXT =

OT everybody in Iraq is suffering like this. Farmers, for example, encouraged by the high prices that the government is offering to boost domestic agriculture, are among the richest people in the country, and Farhan, a young man who grows fruit and vegetables on his patch of land 50 miles south of the capital, was not ashamed to admit it as he auctioned off a pick-up load of watermelons at a Baghdad market last week.

"People depend on food," he says bluntly. "I'm a lot better off now than I was before the crisis."

Smugglers also are doing well, and the government has been careful to cushion its senior officials from the effects of the crisis. But even those fortunate Iraqis who do have money find little to spend it on. The sale of 140 different sorts of luxury goods has been banned, to avoid conspicuous consumption, and "luxury" includes anything with sugar in it.

Small boys still hawk cartloads of what appears to be soda-pop around town, but all the bottles contain is fizzy water. Flavorings and sugar are unavailable.

Saddam Hussein's government, naturally enough, blames the UN, and especially the US, for the misery of the people. The Iraqis themselves seem confused: Though most blame Saddam for their plight, few are bold enough to risk the wrath of the secret police by speaking their mind to foreigners.

Different Iraqis may have different answers to the question that Tamatha al-Daher, a doctor at Khadissiya hospital, asks herself as she does her rounds of the children's wards. But they all ask the same question.

"Why do we spend so many nights afraid to be bombed, and then in the morning we find nothing to eat?"

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