After war, the terrible peace
(Filed: 19/05/2003)

Alice Thomson in southern Iraq looks at the plight of Basra's hospitals

On the first day back at school after the war, Ali Hussein Mugamis ran
out into the playground and saw a shiny metal object. He remembers
nothing else. As the 12-year-old lies in Basra Public Hospital in
southern Iraq, a doctor is telling his father that the four fingers of
one hand have been amputated, that there is shrapnel in his brain and
thighs, and that it may not be possible to save one of his legs.

Ali Hussein Mugamis faces having a leg amputated after a bomb exploded
in his school playground
On the ward, the doctor points to another boy whose leg has become
gangrenous. "Better safe than sorry," he explains, although there is no
anaesthetic left and the operation will be expensive.

Suddenly, from outside, we hear the terrible sound of wailing. A patient
runs in to say that nine boys have been killed and seven wounded while
playing with an Iraqi rocket. Like many Iraqis, they were probably
planning to take out the fuel and sell it for use in cooking stoves.

On the other side of town, at the mothers and children hospital, it is
water rather than old military hardware that is killing children.
Parents are forced to beg for basic rehydration sachets to treat chronic

Mustafa is 18 months old; since catching a stomach bug six weeks ago, he
has eaten no solids. The area where he lives has had no running water
for nearly two months; he is now suffering several epileptic fits a day.
His mother has stood by his bedside all this time, guarding one of the
few remaining drips. Everyone in Basra is terrified of cholera.

Back in Kuwait, two dozen television camera crews have lined up to
capture the first tentative steps of Ali Ismaeel Abas, the boy who lost
both his family and his arms in an allied bombing raid. But Ali was
airlifted to safety from Baghdad - and he remains an exception.

Relatively few people were killed and injured in the war; it is the
aftermath - the unexploded ordnance, the lack of water and electricity,
the sewage spewing out around the cities - that is terrifying people in
the south. Looters have ransacked the water and sewage plants, often
taking even the bricks.

This comes on top of three wars, 24 years of dictatorship and 12 years
of sanctions. More than 80 per cent of the population were dependent on
hand-outs from the oil for food programme, and most were employed by the

For two months these people have received no food or salaries. Now the
only currency is the corrugated iron torn from the roofs of government
buildings, the light bulbs pilfered from schools and the sinks from
orphanages - all sold for knock-down prices on the looters' market.

The aid agencies say we are witnessing a humanitarian disaster, and
Unicef has launched its largest appeal, asking for #167 million.

An entire country is living on the brink. The problems start as you
cross the border from Kuwait. Desperate farmers have shot holes in the
main aqueduct from Basra, tapping the water every few hundred yards.

Locals with donkey carts, children and goats are all helping themselves,
swimming in puddles in the desert. By the time the water reaches the
town of Safwan it is a trickle. At the health clinic there is not enough
left to make a glass of tea.

Unicef already has 67 tankers coming from Kuwait each day, filled with
water, but these service less than 10 per cent of the local population.
Further down the road an ice factory has been looted and people are
carting off chunks for their families.

Before we enter Basra, Jubbar Al Haiday, the former chief engineer of
Basra's water department, takes us to one of the pumping stations. He is
crying quietly as he wades through the devastation. Every bolt and screw
has been taken, the wiring has been stripped out - even the tiles in the
lavatory have been prised off. "I have no workers left. I am paying
guards out of my own savings," he says. Forty per cent of Basra still
has no water.

With him is the director of the sewage department, Maitham Jarella
Saboom, who has 116 sewage pumping stations. Less than a third are
working. He recently discovered a group of looters using a stolen crane
to lift the roof off a water treatment plant. Of his 200 workers only 10
have turned up for work since the war.

Their cars and lorries have been stolen, and they are too scared to
carry their tools with them on their carts. "I have no desk in my
office, no chair, no records - yet they ask me to stop cholera breaking
out," he says.

He takes us to a water treatment plant surrounded by miles of hardened
sewage, cracking under the sun. There are children running over it. The
sewage director explains that they have only one week's chlorine left to
disinfect the water for five million people in the south.

The locals claim that the armed forces have taken it for their swimming
pools, but it is the British who have supplied Mr Saboom with what
little he has.

The consequences of the lack of clean water are most apparent in the Ibu
Ghazuau hospital for mothers and children in Basra. Here, the wards are
crammed with children suffering from diarrhoea, most of them being held
in their mothers' arms until a bed becomes available.

Zaira is eighteen months old. Her family comes from the Iran/Iraq
border, which is littered with depleted uranium tips. Her mother tells
us that she suffered six miscarriages before having Zaira - her only
child - who has congenital deformities. The baby became so ill that she
refused to breastfeed, so her mother gave her powdered baby milk - and
now Zaira has diarrhoea and violent stomach cramps.

In the cancer ward children lie limply on their beds. There are no
therapies for them, only pain killers. Unicef hands out milk powder,
nutritional biscuits and basic drugs.

Dr Abd Al Kareen Subber, the consultant gynaecologist, takes us to the
maternity wards. "We have no ultrasound, no monitoring of labour," he

He is visiting two sisters from the countryside. One went into labour
the day the war ended. After two days of agony, she realised that she
must reach a hospital - but she had no transport. "By the time she
arrived, her uterus had burst," says the doctor. "The child died, but I
think we will save her." He has just performed a caesarean on her
sister-in-law, who is clutching her new baby.

In the premature babies unit there are still four incubators. The babies
are so tiny that the smallest nappies reach their chins. They have no
tubes on them - they were all stolen.

"We lost 48 out of 92 premature babies in April. Those that survived did
so without the aid of oxygen - one made it through on black, sugary tea.

"We have few nurses left. Most avoid the premature unit: they are
frightened of staying on the isolation wards alone because of looters,
so these babies are left by themselves in the middle of the night."

The manager of the hospital, Dr Mouhammed Nasir, says: "Contaminated
baby milk and ice-cream are the killers, and children being washed. Just
one accidental sip of water can kill a small child."

To find out what is happening in the schools, we go past the burning
polytechnic to the ministry of education, which has already been gutted.
Seven-year-olds are still scavenging for bits of wire, and the concrete
floors are carpeted with old exam papers. One is for an English exam:
"Re-write in cursive: The boy pats the dog. The Iraqi army is ready to
liberate Palestine."

A group of armed men run in screaming at us. It turns out that they
think we are looters. They used to work at the ministry as clerks, and
have banded together to save the remnants of their office. Many of the
700 schools in Basra have also been looted. Unicef is trying to deliver
as many "schools in a box" as it can - crates packed with paper,
pencils, blackboard paint and chalk.

At Yomoma girls' school, a teacher points to the sweating
seven-year-olds, and cries: "We have no fans, no milk or water for the
children. They are being treated like animals going to market, not
pupils receiving an education. We are the second richest oil country in
the world, but we have nothing - it is madness."

The Americans are planning to restructure the curriculum but, at the
moment, that is merely a matter of tearing out pages. What people need
now are water supplies, lavatories, desks and teachers. Each school is
operating on two-hour shifts; 25 per cent of children do not receive any

The British Army is doing its best. It cannot guard all 700 schools but
Sgt Rachel Webster from the Royal Military Police has raised funds to
re-decorate Khadiga girls' school, which sits next to the bombed-out
ministry of information and the offices of the secret police. She is
even equipping it with a library and swings, donated by the troops.

"It's my hobby," she explains. "It takes my mind off my day job,
gathering criminal intelligence about the looting, kidnapping and

This is a crucial period for the people of Iraq. The aid agencies have
just returned. In Basra, the Armed Forces have re-recruited the police;
neighbours are beginning to band together to protect their amenities.
Workers are trickling back.

It is easy to blame the Iraqis for destroying their own future, but much
of the looting has occurred as a result of a long dictatorship and
because almost everyone has now lost his or her job. I ask one man why
he was carting off paving stones.

"Because Saddam took what was ours, so we are taking it back," he
replies. Outside the United Nations office, soldiers hold back more than
1,000 people, clutching their CVs, all screaming for jobs.

Some Iraqis have been extraordinary. At one orphanage, Dr Mohamed Ghali,
a former university lecturer in biology, moved in to help protect the
boys after looters threw in grenades and ransacked the home. "I am
ashamed of what my neighbours have done to this place," he says. He goes
begging for the boys' food every morning, and for mattresses.

The agencies' first priority is to get the water and sewage systems
working and to provide food and oral rehydration sachets for the most
vulnerable. At the same time, they are trying to re-equip the hospitals
and to start clearing the mines, cluster bombs and ammunition dumps. The
schools are next on the list.

Two of the Unicef workers, from Somalia and Sudan, tell us: "It is even
worse than Somalia and Sudan. But this country has the chance of a
future, if we can get it right. It is like a rich man who has trashed
his palace - at least the plot of land on which we have to build is rich
with oil."

To donate to Unicef's Children of Iraq Emergency Appeal call the 24-hour
credit card hotline on 08457 312312, log on at or send
a cheque payable to Unicef to: Telb, Unicef, FREEPOST CL885, Chelmsford,
CM2 8BR.