My Trip to Baghdad, Iraq

by Khairul Azri Sabri

I had heard much about the economic sanctions that had been imposed on Iraq since the year 1991 by the United Nations. Thus, I started to wonder how a war-torn country could even survive and recover for the past ten years under the international embargo. Much has been said about how the sanctions target the weakest of the Iraqi society , the poor, elderly, newborn, sick and young. So, I was grateful for the opportunity to visit Baghdad and see for myself the status the country and the extent of the sufferings.

So, on the 13th of March year 2001, I set of for a one-week stay in the Middle East. Seven in the Golden Kids Club group including me followed the delegation from the Malaysian Ministry of Health that consisted of mostly doctors, staff from the ministry, a few businessmen, several reporters and the Minister of Health himself Dato' Chua Jui Meng with his wife. We set off with the sole mission of highlighting the plight of the children in Iraq and to pass on the awareness to people around the world, beginning with the people back home in Malaysia. We were initially invited by the first lady of Malaysia, Dato' Seri Dr. Siti Hasmah to go to Iraq as we were part of a television programme and was seen as a suitable media to deliver the message.

Iraq had been declared a ' no-fly zone' by the United Nations. Therefore we flew to Iraq' s next-door neighbour, Jordan, and travel into Iraq by car. We spent one day in and around it' s capital, Amman, visiting many interesting places including historical sites and the Dead Sea. Whilst on the job, we had the opportunity to socialize with a few of the local kids in Amman and enjoyed a game of football together. We had learnt a lot about a typical day in their lives through a short interview with the boys.

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Early the next morning, we prepared ourselves for our journey into Iraq. By GMC' s we took ten hours across bare desert land. We made only several stops along the way including two immigration checkpoints at the Jordanian border and the Iraqi border. Due to the sanctions, items such as electronic devices had to be declared before entering Iraq. Finally, later in the afternoon, we arrived in Baghdad city. We stayed at what is claimed to be the best hotel in Baghdad, the Al-Rasheed hotel. Tired and sleepy, we went to bed with an excited feeling for our activities the next few days.

First on the itinerary was a visit to an orphanage in Baghdad called the Karradat Mariyam orphanage home. On the half-an-hour trip by coaster to the orphanage, we wasted no time and pumped balloons and prepared gifts for the children we were going to meet.

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Soon we arrived at orphanage, which sheltered 74 young children all under the age of five. We were astounded to learn that there were only four attendants looking after the welfare of these 74 children. In my mind, I doubted that these poor children receive the love and attention that they critically need from just four people. We discovered that these children' s parents had died due to a number of reasons, which include complication during birth, road accidents and even some as a result of the Gulf War. When asked, the caretaker of the orphanage told us the home was supposed to be a playschool for little children. Although so, I did not see any toys for them to play with or books for them to read. Everyday was rather a dull day for them as they only had each other to keep them company. We passed around balloons and chocolates to the children who were indeed very happy to receive them. It was later that I realized that their joy came not from what we brought, but by simply our presence there at the orphanage that day. Each child had longed to be embraced and wanted to feel loved. Some did not want to let go when we pick them up.

Later that day, we were on our way to the Baghdad Children' s Hospital. Like before, we pumped a coaster full of balloons and prepared gifts for the patients at the hospital. To me, our visit to the hospital that day really showed us the consequences of the sanctions on Iraq. As many might have already known, the sanctions have restricted the import of many facilities and medicine. These items which were not present at the hospital caused many to worry about surviving even the normal cough and cold. Another thing that the hospital lacked was attention towards the patients. Sadly, there were no nurses, and therefore the young children patients were taken care of either their parents or grandparents. Six beds to a small room and bed sheets that were not constantly clean had brought about a disturbing stench. I realized also that bed sheets and blankets were the patients own and was not supplied by the hospital. As we walked from room to room handing out balloons and gifts, we met many young patients suffering from otherwise curable diseases such as leukemia, heart and brain problems. We managed to interview the director of the hospital and ask him a few questions. According to him, in this hospital alone, one to two children die everyday and in the two hours we were there, another died because of leukemia. Around Iraq, some 7500 children die every month. He said that most leukemia patients are victims of depleted uranium from bombs during the war.

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The second day we were in Iraq, we got a chance to visit two schools in Baghdad- secondary and primary. We were told all schools in Iraq are fully sponsored by the government. Each student now, would receive 12 pencils, 4 erasers and 4 sharpeners for the whole year. Books were shared and had to be passed on to be reused by juniors. Their classroom environment was not at all suitable for learning. Three to four seventeen-year-olds had to share a small knee-height table in a small class filled with 45 to 50 students. Worse still, three to four small primary students had to share one small bench. We also realized that most of the chairs and tables were old and rusty, probably had been reused for many years. Their science laboratory had only tables, chairs and a blackboard. There were apparatus or equipment to conduct experiments with. All science subjects were learned based on theory, which made it more difficult to understand.

I' d say the most memorable place that we visited while in Baghdad was the Al-Meriyah bomb shelter. This bomb shelter was built in 1984 to protect civilians from the shower of bombs outside. Inside this shelter, with walls and ceiling made with 5 layers of reinforced concrete and steel, one could not hear the terrifying sounds of explosions outside. Therefore to feel safe, many families came just to sleep the night at the shelter. Some parents even, only send their children there as they had more important things to do outside. In 1991, during the invasion of the United States of America in Iraq, two laser-guided missiles were fired at the shelter, each weighing two tons. February 13th, at 4 am, the first missile penetrated the thick ceiling of the shelter, creating a big hole, and exploded killing many. This had cut all electricity power, sealing all the doors and trapping everybody in. about five minutes later, a second missile entered the hole in the ceiling and exploded. This second explosion killed more and burst a hot water pipe in the service are. Temperature inside the bomb shelter rapidly rose to a high 400 °Celsius. Hot scalding water flooded the area causing kids, who were sleeping on the top bunk of a triple-decker bed, to be thrown upwards.

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Up until today, you can see the burnt flesh from their hands and feet still stuck on the ceiling of the shelter. The bomb explosions had caused the whole area to be black, but at one corner of the shelter we were able to see white shadows on the walls. They were figures of people who were thrown onto the wall because of the explosion. You could clearly see figures of a mother carrying her baby and another lady who was going to be married the next day. Ironically, her figure on the wall almost seems as if she was in a wedding gown. Out of 432 people, 418 died and 14 survived. We managed to interview one of the survivors, Ammar who told us his story. Ammar had lost six family members in what he referred to as a crime. He told us that after the incident, life had no meaning for him. We asked him about his advice towards people who are still fighting in battles right now. Because of all the trauma that he has been through, he gave us a rather disappointing answer. He said his advice was to stand your ground in battle and fight to kill the enemy.

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As we were nearing the end of our Baghdad visit, we had made many observations. The children in Iraq really lack exposure on the outside world. The only sources of information they have are the local reports in the local papers. With only the knowledge of instability of his own country throughout his life, one' s mental development could easily be disturbed.

I am sad to see a once wealthy nation now struggling to survive. Adults claim to be trying to solve problems by waging war on each other. But from what I have gathered, the aftermath of war will get to you, no matter where you try to hide. I now realize that my home country is in a safe and prosperous condition and I am very grateful. I also know that in order to maintain such, we have to work together towards a healthy and peaceful environment.

Many have reviewed the situation in Iraq and have come up with their conclusions, but for us, War and politics has always been an adults game, but the losers are always the children. deserve to suffer. So, why not lend a helping hand. Thank you!