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[casi] Iraqi kids toil in Dickensian desperation

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Iraqi kids toil in Dickensian desperation

Thousands work long hours salvaging battlefield litter to support families

  Wednesday, August 13, 2003


Baghdad -- Karar Ali works each day in the molten 125-degree heat of
Baghdad's summer amid a giant mound of discarded ammunition. He starts his
job most days about 6 a.m. and often works until 5 p.m.

Karar is 9 years old.

For more than six weeks, he and his diminutive colleagues have chipped away
at each bullet until the copper casing comes away from the lead. A large
sack of copper chips fetches 3,000 dinars -- about $2.80.

"I can fill half a sack if I stay here for a long day," Karar says, one
pudgy hand clutching a Kalashnikov bullet that is searing hot to the touch.

"My mother says this is a good job. I give her all my earnings."

Hundreds of thousands of live bullets and spent shells have been gathered
from the military camps of Iraq's crushed army and from the war litter
strewn on Baghdad's sidewalks.

The sight of small boys in shorts and sandals squatting over piles of
ammunition recalls the rigors of a medieval factory. But these working
conditions are not startling in Iraq these days, according to child-welfare
experts in Baghdad. The war's end has brought not only a seemingly
bottomless supply of battlefield junk, it has lured perhaps thousands of
children into arduous, and sometimes dangerous, jobs.

For years under Saddam Hussein's rule, many poor Iraqis suffered from the
results of economic mismanagement and international sanctions. But experts
say that the government's implosion on April 9 has knocked poor Iraqis flat.

Hundreds of thousands of people in the extensive civil service lost their
jobs, stripping support for numerous relatives of each employee. Others have
lost homes or been affected by the months-long shortages in food
distribution and social services.

"Parents are saying to their children, 'Go out and earn some money. One
thousand dinars, 2,000 dinars, we don't care where it comes from,' " said
Mohammed Ghazi Saber, a social worker who runs a drop-in center for children
in Baghdad's Karrada district. The center opened last month, with funding
from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the French aid
organization Children of the World.

"A lot of the children who come in here are working day and night," Saber
said. "Now we are offering them clothes and food. Maybe that will be enough
to stop them from working."

International treaties, which Iraq has signed, forbid children under 15 from
working at all. Children under 18 are banned from doing hazardous jobs. But
in dozens of countries, such well-

intended laws fall victim to the rules of survival. Across Baghdad, working
children say they feel lucky to have jobs. Without them, their families
might well be evicted from their tiny apartments or left without enough

In an earnest tone, 11-year-old Wisam Mohammed explained that he is now the
major breadwinner in his family, with a daily wage of 1,500 dinars, about 94

"I have my mother and two brothers to support," said the lean boy in a red
baseball cap. Wisam's father died a decade ago. The boy made it to fourth
grade two years ago. "Then I dropped out because the school started asking
us for money," he said.

This summer, Wisam's job is to toil over a hunk of aluminum, dismantling a
piece from a defunct Iraqi military plane with a hammer and wrench.

His friend Ali Faleh, 13, spends his days hauling bits of the plane to an
open fire, where the first stage of the melting process begins. Acrid fumes
rise from the smoke, while Ali stands watch over the pit. With an entire
Iraqi military plane to melt into metal bricks, the boys have been busy for

Scores of blasted Iraqi tanks, mortar shells and armored vehicles were
hauled into the scrap yards of Saba' Ksoor, a hardscrabble neighborhood on
the eastern outskirts of Baghdad, by local contractors hired by the American
military in Iraq. As summer has worn on, children have flocked into the
yards, looking for a windfall.

The adults have mostly applauded their efforts. "I brought Wisam to work in
the scrap yard so he could learn some skills," said Abbas Abed, 32, Wisam's
neighbor, who said he has helped care for the boy since his father died.
"It's better than him spending time on the streets. It's not really
dangerous, and he can earn money."

Wisam's small hands make the work slow going, as he taps on the metal with
minimal effect. Much of the plane has already been transformed into bricks
of molten aluminum, for sale to a metals dealer. The pouring of the metal is
left to older teenagers.

Some child-welfare analysts believe the children are better off spending
their summer at work than on the streets.

"This is a very tough environment for kids, but it's still better than them
sniffing glue," said Ban al-Dhayi, an Iraqi spokeswoman for UNICEF in

"My whole family's jobless. We really need this money," said Amar Sayed, 15,

who works with Karar amid the mounds of bullets and shells.

With swifter fingers than the children, Amar said he can fill an entire sack
with copper in a long day. That brings 3,000 dinars, about $1.88. The boys'
factory is a patch of dust on the roadside in Baghdad's sprawling Shiite
enclave known until recently as Saddam City.

The children's school year was cut short by the war. Many schools were
destroyed by bombs or looters. Officials say they intend to reopen schools
in late September, three weeks past the normal date.

But in numerous interviews with children working in Baghdad, almost all said
they intended to keep their jobs rather than go to school. Their income has
become indispensable to their families. Amar was the only boy who expressed
a desire to return to the classroom.

"I know I have to learn. I know this isn't a good job," Amar said, holding
out seven live bullets whose copper shell he was extracting that afternoon.
"It's very long hours, and there is a lot of dust and dirt. But for us,
there are no other opportunities at all."

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