This story begins before bullets are sprayed and continues long after the guns fall silent. The story of Iraq's children - innocent victims of yet another power play in the international political arena. As the victorious powers scramble to divide the spoils of "Operation Iraqi Freedom", these mute spectators and victims are left with quite another legacy of this operation - physical, mental and emotional wounds.
While the emotional scars are not yet fully visible, the physical impact is. According to UNICEF data, with little clean drinking water available, Iraqi children experience an average of 14 days of diarrhoea a month. The collapse of sewage and electricity infrastructure has made safe drinking water a rarity in several parts of Iraq.
Alex Renton, OXFAM Regional Media Coordinator, says though an increase in diarrhoea cases is usual in summer, doctors in southern Iraq have found the increase is 10 times more than it used to be, particularly among young children. "And this is directly linked to the collapse of the water supply system and the water cleaning system".
Now, UN officials have confirmed the outbreak of cholera in Basra due to lack of safe drinking water and poor sanitary conditions. Malaria, typhoid and other water-borne diseases are portended as mercury soars in summer. According to UNICEF, the death figure of children under five has more than doubled over the past decade, with 70 per cent deaths attributed to diarrhoea and respiratory tract infections.
While the disease toll mounts, hospitals - under-equipped even before the war - are further crippled by the conflict and looting. Dr Tala Aawkati of al-Yarmouk hospital recounted the horror of being forced to abandon her ward due to crossfire, and later due to looting. When she returned, the ward had been stripped of everything, including fans and lights. All that remained was the decomposed bodies of three infants who had been placed in incubators.
Dr Samantha Nutt and Dr Eric Hoskins of a Canada-based organization, War Child, visited bombed-out Iraq last month. Nutt, a co-founder and Executive Director of War Child, Canada, has travelled several times to Iraq along with her husband and colleague Eric Hoskins. "The situation of children in Iraq is particularly serious," says Nutt. "Many thousands are malnourished, and many have been injured or killed due to unexploded bombs. In addition, many children will require urgent care to help them recover from the trauma of the war."
Half of Iraq's 24 million residents are under the age of 18 and have grown up knowing only war and sanctions, she says. Disillusioned about their future, many can't even return to school because most of these have been damaged, looted or burned.
"After any war, in any country, there are going to be huge problems, particularly for children," sums up Jo Nickolls, Policy Coordinator at OXFAM, an international non-governmental relief organization. The situation in Iraq is worse, with two wars having been fought and 13 years of economic sanctions in between.
Unexploded ammunition continues to endanger children, say relief workers. The al-Eskan Children's Hospital in Baghdad, reports Nutt, gets five or six new cases of severe injury every day. "We are very worried about children playing with unexploded war ammunition," says Mu'een Qasses, spokesman for the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) in Amman, Jordan.
ICRC and the Iraqi Red Crescent society volunteers are working together currently to spread awareness among children and civilians in general to stay away from these objects, "to save what can be saved of people's lives". In trying to get schools reopened, relief agencies are also attempting to salvage children's sense of security. "Schools present a sense of normalcy and a sense of community, that's why it is important for children to go there," says Kali Galanis of War Child.
Simon Ingram, UNICEF's communication officer in Iraq, agrees. Although many schools are not functional because ammunition and weapons are still stored there, aid workers are directing their efforts at getting students back. Children who have been traumatized over a long period or are otherwise injured, says Ingram, should have a chance to resume their normal daily activities. "The fear, the terror, the chaos, seeing their homes, livelihood and society itself shattered around them, has been a terrible experience for many children," says Ingram.
In January 2003, War Child visited three cities of Iraq - Baghdad, Karbala and Basra - to conduct a study on the possible effects of another war on children. Based on the study, a report was compiled by an international team of researchers, academics and experts in physical and mental health, food security, infrastructure, gender, humanitarian law and emergency preparedness. Describing the status and vulnerabilities of children in Iraq, it also examined the likely humanitarian impact of a military conflict on the civilian population, particularly children.
The report, 'Our Common Responsibility', states that despite some improvements in the health and nutritional status of children from post-1991 Gulf War conditions, Iraqi children were (in January 2003) in a significantly worse state than before the 1991 Gulf War. According to UN estimates too, prior to the current war, over 500,000 Iraqi children were acutely malnourished or underweight.
As most of the 12 million Iraqi children are dependent on food distributed by the Government of Iraq, the disruption of this system by war has had a devastating impact on children already malnourished. And this, says Nutt, makes Iraqi children even more vulnerable to disease and death during and after war.
The most startling findings are based on field data collected by two child psychology experts. They found that Iraqi children were already suffering significant psychological harm due to the threat of war hanging over their heads. Claimed to be the first ever pre-war psychological field research with children, more than 300 children were interviewed to determine their mental health condition. Children as young as four and five had clear concepts of the horrors of war, and the public display of Iraqi resilience masked intense fear and sadness.
"They have guns and bombs and the air will be hot and we will burn very much," said five-year-old Assem. "Every hour, I think something bad will happen to me," 13-year-old Hadeel told the psychologists. Said Sheima, 5, "They will come from above, from the air, and will kill us and destroy us. We fear this very much." The psychologists found that 40 per cent of the surveyed children did not believe that life was worth living anymore.
UNICEF has drawn up a US $166 million plan to provide life-saving and humanitarian support for Iraqi children. And the agency is also planning to help children cope with the psychological trauma of war, says Mohamed Anis Salem, UNICEF Regional Information Officer.
War Child will work actively with UNICEF in this process, and other agencies are expected to join too. "With international support we hope the Iraqi people can gradually recover from this crisis and begin to rebuild their lives," says Nutt.
For Iraq's children, the battle has just begun.