Iraq enters the third Millennium
But how?

Shihab Almahdawi
Fundraising officer
Human Relief Foundation/ serving the people of Iraq.
PO Box 194, Bradford, West Yorkshire BD7 1YW
Ramadan 99-00

Written after returning back from our Ramadan food distribution trip to Iraq.
All data indicated with * taken from UN Humanitarian Panel Report on Iraq, 30 March 1999, Annex II of S/1000/356

Electronic version prepared by CASI, 27 January 2000

On leaving the Iraqi boarders at Traybeel, you won’t be able to avoid admiring the motorway that takes your car for five hundred and fifty one miles to Baghdad. This road is only one of the achievements of the economic prosperity that Iraq and its people enjoyed in the eighties.

This prosperity rocketed Iraq’s socio-economical indicators to above average levels. In the second half of the seventies GDP stood at 75.5* billion dollars for a population of 18.3 million, with a growth average of 10.4%*, and a per capita income amounting to 3.510 US Dollars by 1988. Iraqi Health care reached 97%* of the urban and 78%* of the rural population. This was based upon an extensive expanding network of health facilities linked by reliable communication and a large fleet of service vehicles and ambulances. Infant mortality reached 65* per 1000 live births in 1989, population rose and the welfare system was in place to assist the poorest of the families, orphans and the disabled.

Clean and safe drinking water was provided to almost every house in the country, 200* water treatment plants served urban areas and 1200* ‘WTPs’ served the rural areas. WHO estimates that 90% of the population had access to an abundant quantity of safe drinking water.

In 1989 in the education sector, the primary and secondary enrolment ratio reached 75%* competing with the average of all developing countries ratio of 70%*.  Illiteracy came down to 20%* and spending in the education sector accounted for over 5%* of the state budget in 1989, above the average of all developing countries of 3.8%. According to UNESCO, the Iraqi education policy included provision for scholarships, research facilities and medical support for all students.

Baghdad, Albasra and Almousel universities became the Mecca of knowledge to the students of the neighbouring countries and the graduates of the Iraqi medical schools came to score record levels among the scientific community in Edinburgh, London and Glasgow.

In parallel to that, the agricultural research centres implemented the latest technology and exported highly treated F1 seeds and livestock vaccines to the surrounding farmers and foot and mouth disease became a thing of the past. Farmers enjoyed the reforms in the agri-sector and went on to produce a third of the nation’s food requirements. Dietary energy supply averaged 3.120 kilocalories* per capita per day. Due to Iraq’s relative prosperity it was able to import large quantities of food totalling up to 2.5* billion US dollars a year, which makes it one of the countries that had the heights per capita foods (FAO).

Once in Baghdad, a visitor will be faced by a network of wide roads, tunnels, fly-overs, side and ring roads, which makes the old city one of a kind in having congestion free city roads. Construction stretched horizontally to include areas, which once where known to be outside the capital. A’ddora is a small town that was regarded as a far away place, now it linked to the city centre by a state of the art two story bridge.

But all these features which were indicative of a developed or a near developed country, went in the negative in the year 90-91 and the nation that was once rich became dependant on handouts. A situation was created where the average Iraqi family could hardly afford meat for a single meal whereas a few months earlier they were part of one of the world's most developed nations. A friend mentioned that a child who was born in the early nineties, now aged nine entered home after school and asked his mother about the strange smell in the kitchen; the smell was meat being cooked.

During the period 1993-1999, prices increased 850 times and average salaries plummeted from a monthly average of $300 to $3.

According to the Mr. Hans von Sponeck, the Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, ‘unemployment and low salaries were forcing Iraqis with higher levels of education to abandon jobs as teachers or doctors and to either emigrate or search for employment as taxi drivers or security guards etc’. (UN report on Iraq 24th April 99). He told a group of Spanish MPs visiting Iraq to show their solidarity against the crippling UN sanctions ‘Iraq now is at the bottom of the least developed countries’ (REUTERS/BAGHDAD Jan19 2000).

The most fortunate family in Iraq is one that has a relative abroad. Today, a teacher’s salary of 3500 Iraqi Dinars per month (£1) buys:

One teacher told me that she can’t take lunch with her to school as the rest of the teaching staff simply can’t afford this luxury at this moment in time. This teacher, together with her seventy-five year old mother receives a monthly $100 from her brother in Europe. This state of affairs is particularly unbearable for both the family and the individual.

One of the most dangerous consequences of the state of affairs is the tragedy of child labour that is becoming an endemic one. Streets are full of school-aged children selling whatever is available to support their families by bringing in a second or third income. School enrolment fell down to 53% due to this phenomenon and to the fact that it is very difficult to support a child to go to school. Pencils cost between 100-250 dinars depending on the quality, rulers, rubbers and sharpeners are likewise; homework books are 500 dinars. Even if the family is able to afford that, then school bags, lunch and lunch boxes are unheard of.

Iraq has the world's second largest oil reserve, after Saudi Arabia, but is now unable to even maintain its schools. 83% of schools need rehabilitation and schools with the capacity of 700 are having to deal with 4500 students in one given time.

We visited the Ashama’el Primary in Albasra City where 300 little girls are contained in a building that is not suitable for them at all. Electrical wires are exposed from the walls and windows are without glass. ‘We have to cope with plastic sheets in the winter to stop the cold and cardboard in the summer to block the sun’ the head teacher said. ‘The school has very little financial resources’ she added. I saw the little girls in the playground and asked about toys, she said ‘we only have one football that is chased by the girls in the play time’. One thing I noticed was that there was no water fountain in the playground. ‘Do the girls have a water fountain?’ I asked, and it was clear that I had struck a sensitive nerve.  The head teacher was so embarrassed then she led us to the janitor’s house at the back of which was a water tap in a hole in the ground. I did not ask about the toilets to save any further embarrassment.

We entered the third year classroom and looked for chalk, it took us some time to find a piece. At year six, quite a few girls raised their hands when I asked ‘who wants to be doctor?’, another large majority shouted ‘me’ when I asked ‘who wants to be an engineer?’. I was full of admiration for the head teacher, whose task was to carve a mountain using a bread knife. I was equally surprised to see such an enthusiasm in these girls eyes who, despite having so little in terms of resources, still had such high aspirations.

At the tertiary education level the Iraqi universities are witnessing a new phenomenon: the absence of normal contacts with the outside world, scientific impoverishment and a severe shortage of facilities. Students studying IT have never used a computer and have only heard of the world wide web. Students at the school of Medicine have to use photocopied books and at the final year at the school of Chemistry thirty five students have to share one book on Biochemistry. Photocopying is very expensive, 100 Dinars for an A4 sheet. Following graduation, graduates can’t get any jobs let alone work in their field of specialty.

The ‘maternal mortality rate increased to 131 deaths per 1000 live births and likewise infant mortality, defined as the death of children in their first year, increased from 47 per 1000 live births to 108 per 1000 live births within 1993-1999 (UNICEF, survey released on 12 Aug 99 ‘Human Emergency’).

This is not the only problem that Iraq is facing in the post 1990 era, entering the new Millennium. We visited the City of Albasra Maternity Hospital and talked to Dr Jenan, the doctor in charge of the leukemia ward at the hospital. ‘We are facing cases that we never encountered before, babies with no eyes, ears or noses, very similar to the outer space beings’. Dr Jenan and the medical community in Iraq are attributing this to the DU coated shells that were used by the Alliance in 1991 as an effective armor peircer. Prof. Rokke, Ph.D., Dept of Physical and Earth Sciences, Jacksonville State University, is Head of the team in charge of cleaning twenty three armored vehicles used in the Desert Storm campaign. He said ‘this substance is evil, I lost nine of my team members when we removed twenty three armored vehicles from the Saudi dessert. It took us three years to declare them safe for reusing’ (Cambridge 13th Nov 99).

According to Prof. Rokke ‘DU is actually uranium 238. U-238 is the non-fissionable residue of the uranium enrichment process.’ (Paper presented at Cambridge Uni, England, Nov 13th 1999)

There is a six-fold increase in child cancer cases in Iraq; all evidence points at the 40,000 DU coated anti tank rounds and the 940,000 DU rounds fired by US aircraft at Iraqi armoured vehicles during the 1991 campaign. On impact they left a residue of radioactive dust throughout. ‘If DU enters the body, it has the potential to generate significant medical consequences’ said the US Army Environmental Policy Institute. The residue dust, travelling where the wind blows, remains radioactive for years to come. Prof. Rokke mentioned that DU has a half-life of 4.468 billion years (Cambridge 13th Nov 99).

In addition to the fall in income and the consequent fall in the dietary energy supply, the Iraqi child population is now suffering from an acute malnutrition, low birth babies rose from 4% to 25% of registered births and as many as 70% of Iraq women are suffering from anaemia (UN on Iraq April 99). A further factor contributes to babies ill health is that the formula milk feed is mixed with untreated tape water. Only 40% of water used over all is safe to drink

This state of affairs is making the life of the ordinary Iraqi family unbearable and permanently scarring their daily and future lives. Simple things can start big rows that can end up with the husband leaving his family simply because he feels that he is unable to keep them. Eid clothes, stationary, new clothes for the growing children, sweets and other little things that were regarded as bare necessities or even less are now untenable dreams – nobody would every have imagined such a world. Young men and women find it almost impossible to get married as it is not possible to provide for another family member. A father with good intentions is forced to marry his only daughter to a distant relative whom she has never seen, who works abroad, for the sole reason of giving this girl some sort of a future. Unfortunately some of these marriages are short lived for obvious compatibility problems and the girl comes back home with a baby to add the already existing family difficulties. How can one blame the father who was only trying the best for his beloved little daughter?


Iraqi society is changing and the experiences of the last decade of the twentieth century are hitting hard at the roots and fabric of society. The first of these observations is the increasing number of second hand shops: families can’t afford the cost of living and are forced into selling their furniture, electric appliances, their children’s toys and pets. The money raised is used to buy basic necessities or to send their children to go to school. Another observation is the phenomenon of the ‘doorstep visit’ that starts and ends on the door step, as there is no furniture left in the house for the guest to sit on. Adding to the climate of stress are the continuous power cuts, which have a bad psychological effect on the adults and the children, some of whom get terrified when it happens. These cuts force the use of the old paraffin Ala’udien style lamps, which release harmful poisonous fumes around the house. I was so surprised and frightened by the smell but no one else but me seemed to be able to notice it. The fact is that this paraffin is going to add to the ill health of the adults and especially the children in the future.

The ‘future’ is a very rosy word to many of us, but to many Iraqis it is an unimaginable and very daunting concept. The future to most is simply escaping the hell that they now have to put up with. I must have been asked hundreds of times from different kinds of people the eternal question, ‘HOW CAN I GET OUT?’ The next most often asked question is, Do the people outside know what kind of hell we have to put up with?’ These questions come from graduates, engineers, doctors, chemists and the like. It is not that they are uneducated or naïve, but simply that they cannot see any evidence of the world trying to help them either escape or live in the world they have been forced to inhabit.

You witness so many different embarrassing situations especially when you visit a friend who can’t serve any kind of face-saving meal or otherwise. So many others talk as if you were the reason behind their misery or you are the pied piper who can put an end to all this by blowing your magic flute.

There are a few things that are noticeable on the streets, cars from the early fifties exhumed by the young generation and put back into some running order to be used again. Others in which either front, rear or all windows missing. To have front and rear lights is a luxury that not everyone can afford, on many occasions I thought we were heading towards a motorcycle but it turned to be a car with one headlight. I tried once to check a relative’s car tyre treads, they turned out to be bald. I was told that looking for fully treaded tyres is like finding a needle in a haystack.

It is amazing to know that the world is now in its third Millennium and yet there exist on that same earth places which would seem out of time a thousand years ago. We have managed to send man to the moon, but we have not been able to know our neighbours. We have managed to find cures for ‘natural’ diseases, but we have not found a cure for human diseases. We have created a world in which some dream of diamonds and mansions, while others dare not to dream at all.

Stories from the streets


Amal means hope in Arabic. Amal is also a ten year old girl who is full of energy and comes from the ancient city of Albasra. She sells pumpkin seeds at the Shat’Alarab promenade. I got to see her for the first time when we were coming back to the hotel. It was 9pm and the street was really dark, ‘What are you doing out side your house at this time of the night?’ I asked little Amal. She was afraid of me asking her this question, and then she showed me her basket. ‘What are you selling?’ ‘Pumpkin seed’ said Amal. I looked in the basket and then at Amal. I was surprised, ‘Do you go to school Amal?’ her eyes lit up and she replied, ‘No, but I sell pumpkin seeds’. ‘How much is the bag?’ Amal made small paper pouches folded around the sides, ‘They are 25 Dinar each’. I bought the lot and thought that under normal conditions Amal would go to school and she may get to be a brain surgeon or a university lecturer; Iraq was well known for such people. I left Amal with two questions in my mind; how is she getting back home at this time of the night and what future is she going to have?

The Professional

I called her ‘the professional’, when I developed my films and saw the picture I took of her. She had a firm look in the eyes and a firmness around the face. She looked to me as a serious, strong secondary school head teacher.

‘What is your name?’ I asked her casually while looking at the box in her right hand.


‘And what do you have in the box?’

‘Sunflower seeds’ she said.

‘How much is the pouch?’

‘25’ Marwa said.

‘And if I take the whole lot?’

‘300 dinars’

I paid 500 Dinar to Marwa and left.

I paid the money and still have the seeds with me. The good thing is that Marwa goes to school and wants to become a teacher.

Allawi the shoe shine boy

Allawi, is a shoe shine boy who sits by the Basra Sheraton main entrance waiting for customers. I noticed him when I first arrived. The next day on my way in he invited me to do my shoes. I said I’ve just done them when I was wandering around Aljaza’er Street.  Allawi said, ‘Uncle do them again’, I said ‘I have no time now - I’ll do them tomorrow.’ The next morning I left the hotel and waved to him through the car’s side window, I saw a question in his eyes, ‘Isn’t it tomorrow?’.  I smiled back.

That night I met him on my way back and he smiled and said, ‘Uncle, today is yesterday’s tomorrow’.  I laughed and said, ‘Allawi, I am tired - leave it till tomorrow.’ His eyes kept on following me each time I came in or popped out of the hotel and each time I could see the same look in his eyes. Then, in the morning of the day when we were to depart I brought down my luggage while Haider the driver was organising the boot, when I noticed Allawi arriving. He spotted me and gave me a nice smile, I couldn’t stop my self and rushed with my dirty old shoes towards Allawi who understood that tomorrow had finally arrived, he straightened up, adjusted the little tin can he uses as a seat, got his shines and brushes out and started working. I went on asking him about his family and future and he was answering my questions enthusiastically. I wished I could have stopped time and extended the conversation but Haider kept on sounding the horn, urging me to finish. I gave Allawi 2000 Dinars (70p) and left. Allawi is thirteen and doesn’t go to school but he is able to make about 10,000 (£3.50) Dinars towards the end of the month.

On leaving Albasra and Iraq altogether, nothing stayed with me but the photographs of these children who are standing against the events with everything they had. A large majority had to bend to the harshness of the times, others passed away like the children we visited at Albasra hospital, but some are standing up with great strength, high and mighty, just like the date palms around Shat’Alarab, no matter how.