"They come from above, from the air, and will kill us and destroy us. I can explain to you that we fear this every day and every night." Shelma (Five years old)
It is not Saddam Hussein and his henchmen, but Iraq's 12 million children who will be most vulnerable to the massive use of force that the US plans to unleash against their country in the coming months. With or without UN Security Council backing, the looming war on Iraq will have immediate and devastating consequences for the country's children, more vulnerable now than before the 1991 Gulf War.
A team of international investigators including two of the world's foremost psychologists have conducted the first pre-conflict field research with children and concluded that Iraqi children are already suffering "significant psychological harm" from the threat of war.
The team was welcomed into the homes of more than 100 Iraqi families where they found the overwhelming message to be one of fear and the thought of being killed. Many live in a news void, with little information concerning the heightened threat of war.
"I think every hour that something bad will happen to me" said Hadeel, aged 13.
Assem, five, and one of the youngest interviewed, said: "They have guns and bombs and the air will be cold and hot and we will burn very much."
But it is the fear expressed by the majority of the children that most shocked the team. In a breaking voice 13-year old Hind told them: "I feel fear every day that we might all die, but where shall I go if I am left alone?"
When and if a massive bombardment and invasion comes, the investigators predict the consequences will be so dire that the plight of Iraqi children must be given more priority when Britain and the US consider the alternatives to war.
Because there is only one month's supply of food in the country and the overwhelming majority depend on rations distributed by the Baghdad regime, the chaos of war could tip a population of malnourished children into starvation. And once American and British bombs start falling on President Saddam's power stations, the country's main water treatment plants will fail causing the rivers to become contaminated with sewage.
Millions of Iraqis rely on river water to irrigate crops and prepare food. Drinking or even washing dishes in such contaminated water will make an already vulnerable population liable to deadly diseases ranging from E-coli to typhoid.
Before 1990, Iraq's health care system was the pride of the Middle East and was described by the World Health Organization as "first class". The ensuing Gulf War and sanctions have crippled the healthcare system causing death rates of children under five to double over the past decade with 70 per cent of deaths caused by easily avoidable bowel diseases and respiratory infections.
Despite grave concerns at the highest levels, UN agencies are unable to prepare for an emergency that has yet to happen without being accused of clearing the way for war. The World Food Program is preparing to feed up to one million Iraqis for at least three months, but once the shooting starts it will have to pull out its expatriate staff.
Iraq's civilian population of 22 million is particularly vulnerable. Some 16 million half of them children are totally dependent on monthly government-distributed food rations. The last 12 years of sanctions and corruption within the regime mean that few if any families have stockpiles of food to get them through a war of any length. The World Food Program supplies basic foodstuffs, but deliveries are left to the Iraqi government and a bombing campaign that destroys bridges over the Euphrates and Tigris rivers will stop distribution in its tracks.
The report of the international study team, published by the charity Warchild, warns that there will be a "humanitarian disaster" if war breaks out. Children, already weakened and vulnerable because of sanctions are "at grave risk of starvation, disease, death and psychological trauma".
The experts expect casualties among children to be in the thousands, probably in the tens of thousands, "and possibly in the hundreds of thousands".
The team concludes a new war would be "catastrophic" for Iraq's children.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd