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Their collateral damage

The war in Iraq has been reduced to mere statistics. But the real tragedy is the destruction of the nation and the absolute horrors visited on its people, especially women and children, writes Lalita Panicker.

india Updated: Oct 30, 2007 00:26 IST
Lalita Panicker

The war in Iraq has been reduced to mere statistics. But the real tragedy is the destruction of the nation and the absolute horrors visited on its people, especially women and children.

Laura Bush has always been thought of as a more sensitive and sober person than her cowboy husband. But clearly, Dubya’s characteristics are rubbing off on the normally circumspect Ms Bush. In an interview to a popular news channel a few months ago, Ms Bush made a series of what can only be described as utterly insensitive remarks. When told by the interviewer that Americans were suffering watching the war in Iraq unfold, she said with astonishing panache, “And believe me, no one suffers more than their President and I do when we watch this, and certainly the Commander-in-Chief, who has asked our military to go into harm’s way.“

Now, we could expect this from that master of illogic, former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, who dismissed the deaths and destruction in Iraq as stuff that “just happens”. Or a Madeleine Albright, who described the deaths of innocent civilians as “collateral damage”. But our hearts bleed for Dubya and the missus suffering away within the gracious and protected confines of the White House.

The war in Iraq has been reduced to mere statistics. But the real tragedy of the destruction of a once great nation and the absolute horrors visited on its people, especially women and children, does not get enough publicity. Oh now and again, when US troops go into homes and shoot dead some poor pathetic person and his family, human rights activists shake their heads in disapproval.

For Iraq’s children, the war has robbed them of their childhood. Coming back to the combative Albright, when asked if the price of half a million dead children was worth it after the US imposed sanctions that denied them medicines and other essentials, the dear lady replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it.” One in eight Iraqi children during that period died of malnutrition and lack of medicine. But many Iraqis feel that was better than circumstances for children after the invasion. At least then they could play on the streets. Now if they do they are bound to get killed or maimed. An Oxfam report released earlier this year recorded that at least 92 per cent of Iraqi children have learning disabilities. Teachers do not go to schools for fear of getting killed. Eleven per cent of newborn babies are underweight.

These statistics are just the tip of the iceberg. In Baghdad, at least 70 per cent of children suffer from trauma-related conditions like bed-wetting and stammering. A generation of children has grown up knowing only violence as a form of social exchange. They have no access to counselling.

Children go to school never knowing whether they will come back or not. The sights they see on the way are bomb blasts, gunfire exchanges and dead bodies. In such circumstances, their access to food too is diminished. Unicef says that one in 10 children under five is underweight and one in five is short for his age. Health facilities and maternity clinics have been shut down for fear of being targeted. If Baghdad is so bad, children in provinces like Basra, Missan and Anbar fare much worse. Having to constantly flee from place to place has also hampered the ability of parents to take care of their children.

The primary care providers are women who find themselves buffeted by lawlessness and fundamentalism. Kidnappings and rape are now part of daily life. Under the brutal rule of Saddam Hussein, fear of State reprisals deterred crimes against women. Today, the victim is doubly condemned. If she survives her rapists, chances are that her family will do away with her to save their honour. Traffickers can buy a woman for less than $ 100 in this oil-rich nation. In the late 1970s-early 1980s, women and men enjoyed constitutional equality in Iraq. There was compulsory education for all until the age of 16 and equal pay for equal work. Saddam opened the doors to undermining the rights of women by courting the extreme Islamic factions. Hopes that the American invasion would bring about American-style rights for women have been dashed. Where women could once wear whatever clothing they pleased, the hijab and the enveloping abayya have made a comeback. This, many women feel, will shield them from the eyes of rapists. The Iraqi national assembly has 85 women in a total of 275 members. But this has not meant rights for women.

On the surface of it, there is much talk of Islam granting women all rights. But when you don’t have the right to step out of home to buy food for fear of being killed or kidnapped, this means nothing at all. George W. Bush’s administration, including that fearsome feminist Condoleezza Rice, is silent about the sufferings of the women of Iraq.

Even Laura Bush, that champion of human rights in such distant lands as Myanmar, has not uttered a squeak on the women and children of Iraq. And things are likely to get worse. With 15 months to go of his presidency, Bush is likely to cut as many corners as he can to declare victory in Iraq and lead his troops home. We will see the rise of more extremism and Iraq becoming an ever more dangerous place for its defenceless. This is the legacy we will remember George W Bush for.