No light at the end of the tunnel

No light at the end of the tunnel
Analysis: Since the US invasion in 2003, Iraq's children have suffered, and continue to suffer, unimaginably. The scars will remain for generations, say Dirk Andreasens and Bie Kentane.
10 min read
Iraq's children have grown up in the worst possible circumstances [AFP]

Iraqi children and youngsters have lost every hope for a better future. Most of them are born and raised in a context of pervasive violence, constraining their development.

The primary reponsibility for this must rest with teh US whose invasion and occupation of IRaq opened a Pandora's Box of violence and chaos, that has resulted in millions killed, maimed, deformed, tortured, sodomized, exiled, detained, orphaned, impoverished children of Iraq.

Children: collateral damage in an illegal invasion 

     Never in recent memory have so many children been subjected to such unspeakable brutality.

- Unicef, 2014.

Analysis carried out for the research group Iraq Body Count in 2012 found that 39 percent of those killed in air raids by the US-led coalition were children. Fatalities caused by mortars, used by American and Iraqi government forces as well as insurgents, were 42 percent children.


An estimated 2.7 million children are affected by the conflict and at least 700 children in 2014 are believed to have been maimed, killed or executed.


Many more children have been indirect victims, falling prey to disease, malnutrition or starvation. Widespread poverty, economic stagnation, lack of opportunities, environmental degradation and an absence of basic services, constitute 'silent' human rights violations that affect large sectors of the population.


A large number of children have been killed or badly wounded due to indiscriminate attacks, including shelling of populated areas by Iraqi security forces, while others had died of “dehydration, starvation and heat”. Young boys are being executed, children are increasingly being recruited and used as informants; for patrolling and for manning checkpoints; and in some cases as suicide bombers. They are also given the responsibility to guard strategic locations or arrest individuals. Such atrocities are committed by government forces, their sectarian militias and armed opposition groups including IS and affiliated groups.


In February 2015, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has reviewed Iraq’s record for the first time since 1998 and denounced “the systematic killing of children belonging to religious and ethnic minorities by IS, including several cases of mass executions of boys, as well as reports of beheadings, crucifixions of children and burying children alive”. IS has committed “systematic sexual violence”, including “the abduction and sexual enslavement of children”, it said.


Internally displaced children


In 2014, more than 2.2 million Iraqis have been internally displaced, half of them children. In addition, Iraq also hosts over 210,000 Syrian refugees, out of which 64 percent are women and children with specific protection needs, according to the United Nations Children's Fund, Unicef. One in four of Iraq's 33 million population have become either internally displaced persons (IDPs) or refugees. According to the latest Iraq report from the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 57,000 children reside in camps.


In October 2014, the UN launched an appeal for US$2.2 billion to help 5.2 million people (internally-displaced Iraqis, host communities and Syrian refugees) over a 15-month period. But to date they have only received US$817million.


"Unless funding is secured now, 60 percent of humanitarian operations in Iraq will be shut down or curtailed,” OCHA told IRIN. “The impact of this will be catastrophic for hundreds of thousands of men, women and children across Iraq at extreme risk,” he added.




In the last several decades, Iraq went from one of the best education systems in the region to a mediocre one, including for women (UNESCO, 2012).


A survey by the Tamuz Organization for Social Development carried out in the first half of 2011 found that many schools were broken down. More than 20 percent of primary students, around four million children, drop out each year, and up to 65 percent of children don’t attend school. The main causes of the drop in numbers were the wars and sanctions that beset Iraq from 1990 to the present.


Among the 75 percent of the children 5-14 years of age, attending school, 6 percent are also involved in child labour activities, according to Unicef in 2011.


The violence in northern Iraq at the present moment has seen more than 1.2 million people flee their homes and had a huge impact on the education system in the Kurdish region.

As a result, over 400,000 displaced children¸ as well as hundreds of thousands of students whose schools are being used as shelters, have likely missed out on the start of the new school year, according to Save the Children.




The figures on Iraqi orphans vary considerably but beyond any doubt the occupation of Iraq has created a generation of children who have to survive without at least one parent.


In 2011, Unicef estimated that 800,000 children in Iraq had lost one or both parents. This figure must have increased due to the violence suffered by Iraq during the past couple of years, especially 2013, which the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (Unami) considered one of the bloodiest years Iraq has ever witnessed.


According to Ikhlas Dulaimi, a sociology researcher: "The worsening cases of orphans will reflect negatively on the provinces in the long term. They will be forced to work to support their families after they leave school. In the future, we will have thousands of uneducated youth who suffer from unemployment. They will be recruited by the armed groups that seek to destabilize the state — something that will be very easy.”



A boy salutes in an old army helmet [Anadolu]


Seventy percent of children are suffering from trauma-related symptoms according to a study of 10,000 primary school students in the Shaab section of north Baghdad, conducted by the Iraqi Society of Psychiatrists and the World Health Organization. "We're now finding an elevation of mental health disorders in children – emotional, conduct, peer, attention deficit", according to Iraqi psychiatrist Said al-Hashimi. "A number are even resulting in suicide."


Almost every child is growing up as a son or daughter to victims of severe human rights violations such as torture, rape or chemical attacks. Most of today’s parents have not had the possibility to mourn their losses and recover from their traumatic experiences due to a lack of rehabilitation services and social recognition. Children living in survivor families therefore frequently become victims of aggression, physical and emotional abuse and neglect-effects of intergenerational conflict and dysfunctional family structures produced by collective trauma. They are exposed to violence outside and inside their house.


Children of war left behind in Iraq have no support. Many of them have lost their parents to war and remain mired in poverty. Without any support or help, they often turn to drugs or alcohol, and develop violent behaviour.




Since 2003, the deterioration of the security situation in the country has promoted a rise in tribal customs and religiously-inflected political extremism, which have had a deleterious effect on women’s rights, both inside and outside the home, according to the Children’s Rights International Network, CRIN, in 2014.


Militias have targeted women and girls for assassination, says CRIN, and intimidated them to stay out of public life. Trafficking in women and girls in and out of the country for sexual exploitation is widespread.


Children with special needs


The chronic lack of educational and training materials and reduced educational capacity resulted in increased economic vulnerability of families with disabled children who presented an additional financial burden.


Many children living with disabilities live in rural or remote areas that seriously impact on their ability to access available services due to cost, lack of public transportation and lack of knowledge about available services. Families from remote and rural areas may never see healthcare professionals. Even if the services are available, the cost of medical care will be prohibitive to most families (CARA, 2010).


Independent doctors and scientists have found high levels of toxic and radioactive contamination in the parents of affected children and the environment, resulting from the US military attacks of 2004. Congenital malformations now account for at least 15 percent of all births in Fallujah – more than in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is a particularly high incidence of congenital heart defects and neural tube defects.


Hawija Children’s Hospital also serves an extraordinary number of disabled children. In 2011, the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) presented a report on the hundreds of children suffering from paralysis and brain damage and on the cancers which are spreading like an epidemic, especially among teenagers.


Until 31 August 2014, Handicap International (HI) mobile teams had identified and assessed IDPs with specific needs in areas of intervention in KR-I. Amongst IDPs identified and assessed by HI mobile teams, 34 percent were children with specific needs under 17 years old.


After decades of war and terrorist attacks many thousands of children in Iraq have lost limbs or suffered disfigurement. Even before this latest upsurge of violence, there were over 3 million disabled people in Iraq. Between 10 and 12 percent of the population.


In the current turmoil, families with disabled children are among the most vulnerable and trapped.


Health and toxic environment


Since 2003, the wartime destruction of military and industrial infrastructure has released heavy metals and other hazardous substances into the air, soil, and groundwater. Sites where municipal and medical wastes have accumulated carry the risk of disease epidemics.


“Nutritious food and clean water” had been destroyed on US Central Command’s order to bomb all water facilities in Iraq in 1991. Food was poisoned by the use of Depleted Uranium (DU) weapons, contaminating all fauna and flora. DU’s “half-life” is 4.5 Billion years. The contamination nightmare was compounded in orders of magnitude by the further use of DU weapons in 2003, used again by the UK under Blair’s government.


The pollution of air, water and food condemns future generations in Iraq and the region to a poisoned legacy of cancers and deformities for generations to come.


The Red Crescent Society has warned that child malnutrition rates have risen from 19 per cent before the US-led invasion in 2003 to 28 per cent in 2008. Only one in three Iraqi children under five has access to safe drinking water, and one in four is chronically malnourished


It is clear that the occupying powers have disregarded their obligations under international law. Iraqi children have been grossly neglected by the World community. Between 1998 and 2014, there has been no systematic monitoring by the UN, even though it was widely acknowledged by international specialists and human rights organisations that the situation for Iraqi children was catastrophic.


In 2006, IRIN, the UN news agency, wrote: “With insurgency and sectarian violence continuing to escalate in beleaguered Iraq, children are some of the most vulnerable. Facing limited healthcare and education as well as witnessing death and destruction on a daily basis has made their existence increasingly miserable.”


In February 2008, the Association of Psychologists of Iraq (API) released a report addressing the effect of the war on the psychological development of Iraqi children. More than 1,000 children were interviewed countrywide for the report. Among the children examined, 92 percent had learning impediments, mostly attributable to the climate of fear and insecurity.


Time for occupying powers to take responsibility


In January 2008, Unicef painted a dramatic picture of the situation of children in Iraq and warned that increased assistance was needed to improve their dire situation. An estimated two million children suffered from poor nutrition, disease, and interrupted education. One child died every five minutes because of the war, and many more were left with severe injuries. Of the estimated four million Iraqis who had been internally displaced or who have left the country, one and a half million were children. For the most part, those remaining didn't have access to basic health care, education, shelter, potable water, and sanitation. Sick or injured children, who could otherwise be treated by simple means, were left to die in the hundreds because they didn't have access to basic medicines or other resources.


Despite many alarming reports like these, little has been done by the international community to protect the Iraqi children. The situation between 2003 till the withdrawal of American troops was worse than now: children in the notorious Abu Graib prison were tortured and raped in front of their mothers by US guards, the US detained thousands of juveniles. US-trained militias are still roaming the streets, killing and terrorizing the young. It was not the Islamic State group that started the cruelty against the Iraqi youth.


It is time for those countries that illegally invaded Iraq and then occupied it for more than 10 years, to take up their responsibilities under international law and be held accountable for wasting a whole generation of innocent Iraqi children who paid the highest price in this ‘war of terror’.