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Message from Baghdad

Message from Milan Rai

Baghdad 9/10 December 2001

Greetings to everyone from Baghdad. I started writing this as the sun set
over the Tigris - and the people of Baghdad prepare to break their fasts -
after two very full days of activity.

On Saturday we visited two hospitals, the Al Mansour Teaching Hospital and
the Saddam Paediatric Hospital. I’ve visited these hospitals four times
now – in February and August 1998, and in January this year, and now during
Ramadan. Over that time I’ve seen many changes – corridors which were once
dark and forbidding are now well-lit, lifts which did not work in February
1998 are now functioning – mostly. In the courtyard of the Saddam Paediatric
Hospital, there are now a dozen giant boxes from the Otis Elevator company.

The Intensive Care Unit at the same hospital shocked Andrea Needham when we
visited in August 1998 because of its complete lack of monitoring
equipment – in fact, it lacked any technological support for its patients
apart from saline drips (Andrea is a trained nurse). Now the Intensive Care
Unit is closed – because it is undergoing restoration work.

Throughout the city we can see signs of change. Shiny new red double-decker
buses from China offer public transport around Baghdad for less than 2p a
ride. The Windscreen Index of Prosperity appears to indicate some kind of
sea-change: where almost all windscreens in Baghdad were fractured and
starred in February 1998, now most windscreens are clear and new.

But despite the sporadic building work, and the huge influx of neon
lighting, and the new goods in re-opened shops, most of Baghdad is still
worn-out and tired. And Baghdad is not Iraq. People who have traveled
outside Baghdad in recent weeks tell us that rural areas are not enjoying
improved conditions or the first shoots of recovery we see in the capital.

And even here in Baghdad, despite the new equipment and the renovation and
the new lifts, there are still malnourished children in the children’s
hospitals. I was shocked to discover that there is still marasmus in Iraq.
Two days ago Dr Saad Mahdi Hassani introduced me to four-month-old Saja
Mustafa in the Al-Mansour Teaching Hospital. Saja’s wasted body reminded me
of Zahra, the first child I ever met in Iraq, in February 1998.

Dr Hassani told me that Saja weighs 4 kilograms - a child of this age should
weigh about 6 kilograms. Saja has recurrent diarrhoea - she was admitted two
weeks earlier for a short admission. Her father was a teacher but left his
position to take up a better job, as a builder. Where he might have been
earning 12,000 Iraqi Dinar a month, he is now earning between 2000 and 4000
Iraqi Dinar a day – when he has work. One Iraqi Dinar used to be worth two
pounds. Now it is worth less than 0.1p. One pound is worth 3000 Iraqi Dinar.
So Saja’s father used to earn 4 pounds a month as a teacher, and now earns
around a pound a day, as a builder. The economic sanctions have created mass

Saja is not responding to treatment.

Last November, I asked a UN officer within the oil-for-food programme in New
York why child malnutrition in Iraq had not improved, despite the billions
of dollars of purchases within the oil-for-food humanitarian programme. He
had a two word answer: “dirty water”.

The deep scars of mass poverty and a damaged infrastructure continue to
blight the lives of Iraq’s children. During this year, Baghdad has seen
considerable change, but the beautiful children we have seen in the city’s
hospitals continue to suffer. I finish this message in the murk of a foggy
Baghdad morning. We cannot see the sun.

Milan Rai
voices in the wilderness uk

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