The Human Narrative in Iraq Still Missing

A displaced family from Mosul takes refuge in Erbil, Kurdistan in June 2014. (Photo: UNHCR/ACNUR Americas/flickr)

The Human Narrative in Iraq Still Missing

Dear Mazin. The greeting is always the same and easy, although sometimes I might be more formal and address him as Dr. Mazin. But then what? I stop typing. What now? How will I phrase my question?

Writing to friends in Baghdad is delicate and complicated, not to mention scary and sad. Sometimes after a particularly bloody week of car bombings and violence, when there are reports of many dozens of people dead and injured. I say: please let me know if you are OK. Or: I'm just checking to see how you are. Mazin's response is usually quick. Sometimes it's short. August, 2013: We are safe to the moment of writing this email. The risk is not like 2006-2007 but the attacks can happen anywhere and we expect anything could happen to us or other families at any time. But 'till now we are alive (I can't say safe).

Other times he allows himself to vent. August, 2011: Really, I'm asking my/ourselves if still we have the power to continue as the circumstances around us are not improving, but deteriorating on levels that we can't imagine (chaos, corruption, loss of principals which were already declining over the last 30 years.) There is continuity of the obstacles. In addition, there is an increasing number of patients and our feeling that we shouldn't be static, that we have to improve our abilities which puts even more burden on us, both physically and mentally.

More than ten years after-the-fact, nearly everyone with any sense recognizes the agonizing absurdity of George Bush's mission accomplished statement. But, what about the absurdity of the current administration? What about President Obama or John Kerry or the media wagging fingers at "Iraqis" as they lecture them about "their responsibility" to pull themselves and their shattered country together in face of this current crisis?

What do they know about these Iraqis they're calling on? Do they imagine a capable, functioning civil society has survived twenty four years of economic sanctions, war and occupation, violence and instability with the strength, or energy or capacity to pull this shattered nation together?

The country statistics are dire across the boards. In terms of education, Iraq was a awarded a UNESCO prize for eradicating illiteracy in 1982. In March 2003, a UNESCO Fact Sheet stated: The education system in Iraq prior to 1991 was one of the best in the region, with over 100% gross enrollment rate for primary schooling, and a high level of literacy, both of men and women. The Higher Education, especially the scientific and technological institutions, were of an international standard, staffed by high qualification personnel. By 2004 Iraq's literacy rate was 74% (UNESCO) and by 2007 Education International estimated the rate had fallen to 65% (54% women and 74% men) This should come as no surprise. 84% of higher institutes of education and schools were damaged and/or destroyed in the two wars(UNESCO). Lots of parents kept children home out of fear for their safety; many children left school to earn money to help support their families. Those who attended classes often sat in building without running water or heat or adequate supplies including books. Books and supplies such as pencils could not be imported under the UN Sanctions. As a result, everyone in this once literate culture has fallen behind.

And, the medical system has been in crisis for decades. Iraq had one of the best health-care systems in the Middle East before 1990; a system of primary, secondary and tertiary care facilities that provided free, good quality services (WHO 2003). This changed dramatically after 1990. Like schools, many hospitals were damaged and/or destroyed in the years of violence. They were understaffed and undersupplied; doctors could not keep up with advances in the medical field. Iraq lost as many as 50% of its doctors. Some fled the country; others were assassinated.

Overall health--especially the health of children and other vulnerable groups--declined after 1990. The Under 5 Mortality Rate (U5MR) which UNICEF cites as--"...the single most significant indicator of the state of a nation's children..." increased dramatically, from 50 to 130 deaths per thousand live births in the decade 1990-2000. Over those ten years, children improved in 143 countries, with declines in only 17. The country whose children experienced the greatest decline was Iraq, where the figure for "improvement" was -160% (negative 160%). The next greatest decline - 74%, was in Botswana which at the time had the world's highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection. (UNICEF) It was a perfect storm for disaster: a population with deteriorating health and a collapsing medical system.

Iraq's infrastructure, including electrical and water purification systems and dams were damaged and in some cases destroyed by the bombing of the first Gulf War. More damage was inflicted in 2003, and much of this is not back to pre-war capacity. Buildings and roads, communications systems are waiting to be repaired and/or rebuilt. It is an unending process given the ongoing lack of security in the country.

The list goes on and on. Where there once was a functioning, modern country, in many ways the jewel of the Middle East, there is now a rubble of lost lives and lost dreams. Estimates are that five million Iraqi children have lost one or both parents. Thousands of families have lost children and children have lost siblings and friends. Wives have lost husbands and husbands have lost wives. Everyone has lost someone and something, including hope for a better future. And then there is Falluja, a city so toxic that women are afraid to get pregnant and give birth. Let's not forget how Iraq's environment has been contaminated by the weapons of war and the burning oil fields.

This is obviously not a complete inventory of losses; I'm simply offering a snapshot of the country and the people. It's the "people's history", to borrow a phrase from Howard Zinn, one that is almost completely missing. The main stream media, suddenly having to pay attention to Iraq ...oh yes, that war...follows events as if it were covering a sporting event. There are competing teams, the Sunni, Shia and Kurds, their leaders, supporters and strategies. They regularly report on the wins and losses. They tell us which team is advancing, and which losing ground. They speculate endlessly about the outcomes; project the winners and losers. But humans...the men, women and children struggling to live in Iraq... and significant details about their lives that would help us understand the current crisis, are missing.

Secretary of State John Kerry is obviously, misleading the country when he says "What is happening in Iraq is not happening because of the United States in terms of the current crisis. The United States shed blood and worked hard for years to provide Iraqis the opportunity to have their own governments." And Obama also shifts responsibility to the victims of these wars. The country is their problem now. "Iraq's future will be in the hands of its people...' (October 2010) He repeated this mantra at his recent press conference. "Ultimately this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis" he says as he announced the deployment of 300 military "advisors" to the country. We cannot wait ten years to acknowledge the absurdity and the dishonesty of our government's position and policy on Iraq. Common sense tells us that a country and a people who have suffered so much for so long, who continue to find themselves in a situation of never-ending war and insecurity are not in the best position to solve problems of the magnitude they are now facing without serious and significant help. Not military help. The country and the people of Iraq need the help of the international community to rebuild the country, not for profit but for the people who struggle against enormous odds to continue living there. We need to mobilize against military aid and for significant economic and humanitarian assistance. It is already very late.

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