Iraqi Widows, Orphans Left Stranded

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Associated Press

Iraqi Widows, Orphans Left Stranded

Kim Gamel and Bushra Juhi

The car exploded near a popular ice cream parlor, sending flames and shrapnel through the busy square and killing 17 people.0407 03 1

It was another deadly explosion quickly forgotten by the outside world. But Aug. 1, 2007, changed the life of 28-year-old Maysa Sharif. It was the day she became one of nearly a million Iraqi women who have lost husbands as the country has suffered through three wars and Saddam Hussein's murderous regime.

Such vast numbers of widows would tax any society, and all the more Iraq's. With virtually no safety net and few job opportunities, most widows have little choice but to move in with their extended families and depend on their largesse.

Sharif was five months pregnant and preparing breakfast for her children when the blast shook their house in central Baghdad. She ran to the scene where her 39-year-old husband, Hussein Abdul-Hassan, ran a cigarette kiosk, and saw him on the ground. "Shrapnel hit his body and his head was cracked open. His eyes and mouth also were open," she said.

"I wanted to close them," she said, but police dragged her away, fearing a second explosion.

And her nightmare continued. Her 7-year-old son Saif had gone to work with his dad, and she couldn't find him. Only as her husband was being taken to the holy city of Najaf to be buried did she learn her son had died in the hospital.

"The funeral convoy turned around and put Saif's body in the same coffin," she said. "They refused to let me see my son or go to Najaf because I was pregnant. I could not believe that he was dead until I saw the death certificate."

Sharif has three other children - 10-year-old Ali, 2-year-old Tabarak and infant Abdullah, whose name was chosen by his father the night before he was killed. They now live in one room set aside for them in her brother-in-law's compound in central Baghdad.

With the government's attention focused on political crises and the U.S.-led war now entering its sixth year, advocates say the plight of women like Sharif is being ignored.

Women's Affairs Minister Nirmeen Othman warns it could boil up into a peacetime "social crisis."

A family health survey provided by lawmaker Samira al-Moussawi, who champions the widows, counted 738,240 widows ranging in age from 15 to 80 as of January 2007, and dating back to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. The figure included those whose husbands died of natural causes and a further breakdown was not available.

Othman estimated the number at closer to 1.3 million.

The problem also threatens the next generation.

A whole new primary school for 640 orphans has opened in Baghdad's Sadr City district, but headmistress Asma Karim says many pupils are failing for lack of support at home.

"Those who are left to care for these children are normally concerned about their survival more than their education," she said.

Al-Moussawi, a geologist-turned-politician, says she has been overwhelmed by petitions for help, including 448 recently delivered to her office in a plastic bag from the predominantly Shiite southern city of Diwaniyah.

"There isn't any strategy, any clear strategy to deal with this social issue - not for women, not for children," she said.

She has proposed legislation to budget $1 million - a tiny fraction of the oil-rich country's $48 billion budget - for educating widows, teaching them skills and raising their tiny pensions. But the Cabinet has rejected the measure.

Umm Hiba, a 38-year-old mother of two in northern Baghdad, blames herself for her husband's death because she sent him to a Baghdad market to buy yogurt for the dinner she was cooking. A mortar attack killed him on Jan. 27, 2007.

"It was all my fault. If I did not send him, he would be alive now with his children," she said, crying as she held her 2-year-old son.

Now she lives with her 7-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son in a room in the back of the house she and her husband shared with her blind brother-in-law and his family. She has built a makeshift bathroom and kitchen.

Neighbors and relatives collected money for her husband's funeral, but she was forced to sell her furniture to buy a sheep to slaughter on the first anniversary of his death, according to Islamic tradition. The sheep cost more than her monthly $62 pension.

Umm Hiba, who would only give her nickname, which means "mother of Hiba," says she applied unsuccessfully for several jobs but was rejected. She could have sought work as a cleaner in a school, but refused. "I have a high-school degree so it would be shameful for me to take such a job," she said.

The pension, she said, can't keep up with soaring food and clothes prices. "In Iraq, everything is costly, except human beings who are very cheap," she said.

By comparison, war widows under Saddam received plots of land, the cost of the funeral and sufficient pensions.

Jalila Hassan's husband, Kadhum Mohammed was 29 when he was killed in 1984 while fighting in the Iran-Iraq war. She was 17 at the time and said she was given a pension and even offered a choice between a car or the equivalent price. She chose the cash.

"Back then, widows were taken care of better than they are now. We were not left in destitution," she said.

Hassan, who lives with her mother and brothers in Sadr City, still gets a slightly higher pension of $80 a month but its value has fallen sharply.

Afifa Hussein's husband, 58-year-old Uraibi Hamid, was snatched by masked gunmen and shot to death July 14 in the insurgent stronghold of Samarra.

Hussein, in her 40s with eight children, found herself struggling to care for two disabled sons and an ailing daughter. To earn extra money for the family, her 19-year-old son drove a cab, a dangerous occupation in Iraq these days.

Her teenage daughter quit school, unable to cope, and a traumatized son moved out of the house for a month to stay with relatives.

Badriyah Hamid, a 45-year-old Shiite cleaning woman with 10 children, was working late at a school in the predominantly Sunni village of Rashidiyah on May 23, 2007, when she learned her 55-year-old husband, Fadhil Jafar, had been shot to death and dumped on the street.

"I ran to the site and all my children came too, throwing themselves on his body. He was shot six times in his back and head," she said.

The killing left one of her sons with a form of amnesia and no longer able to read or write, causing him to fail in school.

But Hamid, a strong-willed Kurdish woman, is struggling to manage on her own.

She moved in with her husband's family but became worried they would try to force her daughters to marry their sons. So with rent money donated by a neighbor, she moved into a two-room house with all her children.

She finds occasional work as a cleaner but still has to scavenge for scraps of food at a nearby market. She worries that without a father, her children will fall victim to drug traffickers or other bad influences.

"My husband was everything in my life. Without him, life is extremely difficult because no one can help us and no one can fill the gap he left," she said. "But besides the financial burdens on my shoulders, I have to care about the morality of my children and protect them from the evils of society."

© 2008 Associated Press

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