Iraq's wounded: on their own

Nearly 37,000 Iraqis were injured last year alone. Though programs exist to help them, many find hope only when they take matters into their own hands.

The biggest break for Fouad Musa, who lost his right arm in a bombing in Baghdad five months ago, came two weeks ago when he got back his job as a cook in a restaurant at half his previous salary.

"I could not believe it when I got my job back. Knocking on the doors of government offices has gotten me nowhere, just empty promises," says Mr. Musa, speaking in the living room of his tiny Sadr City apartment, a giant poster of three revered Shiite imams adorning the pink and white walls.

He is surrounded by his three boys, Ahmed, Mohammed, and Laith, who sit shyly in their finest clothes, listening to every word.

For tens of thousands of Iraqis like Musa, who have been severely wounded or disabled in the war, the standard government response is, "You're lucky to be alive." In a country where the government is too dysfunctional and overwhelmed to meet their needs, and help from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) is increasingly out of reach because of security concerns, many Iraqis find salvation and hope only when they take matters into their own hands.

In 2006, considered the most violent year since the US-led invasion four years ago, 36,685 Iraqis were wounded in acts of violence throughout the country, according to estimates by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. The government does not release official statistics for the dead and wounded, but a source at the Interior Ministry put that figure at 15,143.

Short-order cook at 'Happy' diner

Musa's life was turned upside down in early November when he was returning to Sadr City with his best friend and neighbor, Saeed Rasoul, from work at the Al-Saeed (Happy) restaurant in the Karrada district.

The men had been making the same daily journey for nine years, leaving at dawn and returning at noon in a taxi. Musa prepared short orders for breakfast and then cooked lunch while Mr. Rasoul manned a stand outside selling gaimar, a popular dish of fresh cream topped with honey or jam.

Musa was paid 15,000 dinars ($12) a day and cooked at weddings and funerals for additional income. Last year, he started getting a monthly pension of 98,000 dinars ($77) from the Ministry of Transport, where he had been employed for years as a public bus driver before he was fired in 1997 for political reasons, he says..

The extra cash enabled him to move out of his parents' home and rent out his own place in the Habibiya Apartments, a housing project built in the 1980s for the families of soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq war. He bought a new refrigerator, stove, and living room set on an installment plan.

"I wanted to turn the place into our own little kingdom," he says with a hint of irony in his voice.

Musa, a stocky man in his 40s with a neatly trimmed beard and dressed in a red-and-blue track suit, wells up when he recalls the bombing incident.

The taxi he and Rasoul were riding in was the first to leave a traffic light when it hit a roadside bomb most likely planted for the police behind them.

"When I opened my eyes, I could smell the burning remains of the vehicle and I saw poor Saeed saying his last prayers," says Musa. Both Rasoul and the driver were killed.

Musa suffered for nearly a month, going to four different hospitals in Baghdad, before his arm was properly amputated. He still has shrapnel in his limbs, and after a failed operation to fix a broken jaw, doctors advised him to go abroad for a second try.

"I do not think I would have made it if it was not for God in heaven and the two Jawads under the golden dome," he says referring to two revered Shiite saints buried in a shrine in Baghdad's Kadhimiyah district.

The Ministry of Transport has suspended his pension, and for awhile his family survived thanks to help from his brothers and friends.

He tried recently to apply for the one-time payment of 1 million to 2 million dinars ($787-$1,575) promised by the government to all those wounded or disabled as a result of the violence, as well as for a monthly pension of 90,000 dinars ($70) from the Ministry of Labor's Social Care Network, but was soon discouraged by complicated procedures and a backlog of cases that stretches back years.

At the low point of Musa's despair, he considered removing his 12-year-old son, Ahmed, from school and sending him to work to support the family, but relief came when his old boss told him he could work again at the restaurant supervising other cooks for 7,500 dinars ($6) a day.

Government is overwhelmed

An official at the Ministry of Labor admits the process to compensate victims is slow.

"We are overwhelmed by the backlog of cases," says Raad Qasim, who speaks of efforts to streamline it.

But Mowaffaq al-Khafaji, who heads the Iraqi Handicapped and Survival society, says there is "complete disregard" by the government for the plight of the severely wounded and disabled.

"Unfortunately, government officials are only preoccupied with what benefits them personally and their political parties," he says.

He is focusing his efforts instead on rallying support and funding from foreign NGOs but says that most of them are hesitant to commit to projects in Iraq because security threats prevent them from following up on the ground. Most operate now within the relative safety of the northern Kurdistan region or neighboring Jordan.

At least 84 aid workers have been killed in Iraq over the past three years, according to Cedric Turlan of the Amman-based NCCI (NGOs Coordinating Committee in Iraq).

But Mr. Khafaji says, "I am an activist, I am going to keep trying."

Iraqi exposing issue is threatened

An Iraqi doctor says Iraq still has good healthcare and rehabilitation professionals despite the brain drain, but that the main problem is the lack of infrastructure and systems to support their work. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he recently wrote a piece for a Western medical journal detailing the plight of the country's health system and promptly received a call from someone at the Ministry of Health telling him, "shut up or you will follow the dead and wounded."

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