Women and Children Still at War

May 07, 2003 02:12 PM EDT

Hai El Mahdi - Follow aid workers to the doorsteps of Iraq's big humanitarian problems and you find yourself in places that outsiders rarely visited in the past. Iraq's former regime clearly preferred palaces to poverty - a fact confirmed by a glance at Baghdad's skyline.

But drive past the imposing monuments - including the mosque due to be completed in 2015, already bigger than a domed stadium - and there are unauthorized, hidden showcases of poverty newly accessible on the outskirts of town.

In the northern reaches of Baghdad are the millions who live in and around Saddam City. Most are Iraq's majority Shiites, economic migrants who came here from the south. They were marginalized by the past government, but they are now increasingly organizing to put pressure on the government to come.

The best passport for a visit to deprived areas is anti-diarrheal medicines, or other cures for the age-old plagues that take a high toll on human life, especially on the young. The average Iraqi child suffers 14 episodes of diarrhea per year, according to UNICEF.

It is an average driven up by what is happening in places like Hai El Mahdi. Like other communities now stirring with expectation, the more than 20,000 impoverished Shiite citizens here have organized themselves under their local cleric. They will soon have two small primary health clinics. One opened at the end of April. Another will open soon. Both are signs of change in a community that went unrecognized by government authorities for 35 years.

"We have wanted to start clinics and a build a real water system here for nearly two years," said Alexander Christof, head of a small German NGO starting the clinics. "We were not allowed to do so. The government told us that this settlement does not exist."

Your entry visa to such places is your intentions. A crowd soon gathers to meet and greet you, but without local hosts to vouch for who you are and what you are doing, the locals may well exert their new-found authority and ask you to leave. They are in no mood to suffer further abuse or neglect. Your actions must speak for themselves, must earn you your stay.

Hai El Mahdi stands on land that was empty because nobody wanted it and that looks as if nobody would want it now. Large ponds beside the road contain a mixture of stagnant water and sewage. Streets never paved are lined with rows of garbage. One of the first people you meet is a child standing with a bandaged foot on a large piece of dung.

Outside the clinic are mothers who do not normally encounter foreigners. Some of the infants in their arms can't hold their heads up. You notice thin arms and limp hair on children who should be toddlers. This is the vulnerability at the low end of the government ration scheme that fed 16 million people - two Iraqis in three - until the war. These mothers and children are still fighting their own war, against opportunistic diseases and chronic malnutrition.

There are no churches here, but churches offer safe storage for the needed relief goods and medicines. On the way, you stop for supplies at one church aid depot established by Action by Churches Together (ACT)-Middle East Council of Churches. It is important, in today's Baghdad, to add that this church and the mosque next door were both protected from looters by the people of the neighbourhood.

A team of Iraqi doctors, nurses and assistance is now at work. The German NGO behind them, APN, is supported by a people-to-people initiative called "All Our Children" which includes two US members of ACT.

"All Our Children" supports four more clinics like those in Hai El Mahdi. Christof's strategy is to start small clinics in poor neighbourhoods, and then turn them over as soon as possible to the health department, which was officially re-opened end of April. Banking on improved security and access in the weeks ahead, APN has also begun to refurbish small water systems to treat the water supply that is spreading disease.

"The place to work in Iraq is places like this. Saddam Hussein's government wanted to keep poverty hidden, and it is still likely to be forgotten now," said Christof. "There is not much money for working here, and no money to be made here, but this is where Iraq's humanitarian crisis is."

By Albert H. Lee
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