Iraqis Wait for War

Stinking Brew in Saddam City

Street scene, Iraq
Street scene in Iraq, Oct. 26, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Jowanna Muhammad has only one wish. “My children should finally be able to play outside again,” says the young woman, all dressed in black. Outside her front door in this concrete landscape of housing projects in Saddam City is a huge puddle of stinking black water. Open sewers flow into it, and its shores are lined with plastic bottles, old shoes, and scraps of food. A horde of boys and girls is playing next to it, doing gymnastics on a bent lamp pole. Jowanna Muhammad’s kids are not yet among them. The sewage system in Saddam City, a suburb north of Baghdad, has not worked for a long time.

The washbucket is still standing in the middle of the spotless concrete floor of Muhammad’s home. This is where she has created her own world, with plastic flowers atop a little table. She had only enough money to purchase half of the house. In order to buy the two bedrooms and small entrance, she and her husband had to sell their car and most of their furniture. The small shop that her husband runs did not bring in enough to cover the expenses. But now the sewage is seeping even into her house, through the walls. Ugly spots appear on the clean white surface. “This did not used to be such a bad neighborhood,” she says sadly. Like Muhammad and her family, many Iraqis moved from the south to Saddam City.

Back then, there was electricity and running water in the apartment houses, and jobs on the construction sites. Even though this part of the city was spared any attacks during the Gulf  War, the deterioration of conditions in Iraq has affected the million inhabitants of Saddam City all the more. Their neighborhood has become a slum—and today there are strikingly fewer pictures of Saddam Hussein hanging on walls here than in other parts of the city.

Without assistance from governmental organizations and the United Nations, the people of Saddam City—many illiterate—could not survive. Families spend their entire monthly income on rent for their three-room apartments in the projects—apartments that may hold as many as 10 people. According to figures from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), 49 percent of the families in Iraq do not earn enough to cover their basic needs. As a result, each month the people of Saddam City go to their corner shops to pick up their monthly food rations: 1.25 kilograms of rice, a half kilo of sugar, 100 grams of tea, and a piece of soap. Nothing fresh or rich in vitamins is included. There are almost no gardens where people could grow produce of their own. So it is not surprising that, according to UNICEF statistics, by the end of the 1990s more than 20 percent of Iraqi children under 5 were malnourished. The infant mortality rate, at 131 per thousand births, is very high by the standards of the Arab world.

Puddles of sewage, like the one in Saddam City, however, are not the only health hazard for children. Clean drinking water is especially scarce outside the cities, but even in Baghdad it is in short supply. “Some days, water comes out of the faucet, but on others—nothing,” complains Muhammad. She always keeps a small supply on hand to get by.

Muhammad sends her daughter to school. In Saddam City, schools work on double sessions: There is not enough space in the old buildings, which badly need repairs. And in addition, there are shortages of teachers and textbooks. Other parents do not even send their children to school. “They are illiterate, and think it is better if their children earn some money,” explains an Iraqi U.N. employee. Before, schools were free and the children got a meal there, too. Today, parents have to pay. Now, many children are contributing to their families’ incomes. They stand on street corners until late at night, selling cigarettes or newspapers, or washing windshields. Now, almost a third of all 6-year-olds, according to U.N. statistics, do not attend school at all. Girls are disproportionately affected. In the 1980s, almost 90 percent of Iraqis could read and write—now the figure has dropped to about 50 percent.

These are just examples of how much Iraq has changed in the past two decades. As recently as the 1980s, foreigners came to Baghdad to study or to seek medical care. The leadership of Iraq used its oil income not just for military expenditures but for schools and clinics as well. Not much of this is left: On the U.N.’s Human Development Index for 2000, Iraq—with the world’s second-largest oil reserves—has fallen to 126 [out of 174 countries surveyed]. This is just one place before Lesotho in Africa. In 1991, the year of the Gulf  War, it stood at 91. More than a million Iraqis have already abandoned their country.

Even doctors, who are desperately needed here, earn less than US$10 per month on average. Many of the 22.4 million people, who cannot leave [Iraq imposes high exit fees] or do not want to leave the country are turning to religion. “Before, Iraq was a secular country; this has changed,” says Francis Dubois, who manages the UNDP office in Baghdad. Some time ago, the government began reflecting this change. Now, “Allah Is Great” is written on the Iraqi flag, and public consumption of alcohol is banned.

The West is misusing the sanctions in order to put political pressure on the Iraqi leadership, people in Baghdad say accusingly. As evidence, they say that the U.N. resolutions, according to which all Iraqi imports must be within the “Oil for Food Program,” have blocked urgently needed medicines.

But the American and British governments stress that Iraq is purposely not doing enough for its own people. This way, it tries to win support for an end to the economic sanctions. In Muhammad’s part of Saddam City, the residents are counting on the U.N. Soon, the puddles of sewage will  disappear into a new sewer system, built as a U.N. model project. The last few pipes are ready to be laid. Muhammad is not thinking much beyond that, even though her TV set continues to predict an Iraqi victory over the Americans. “We do not need to get prepared for anything,” she says calmly.

“We are ready.”