Iraq: In once forbidden places, find women and children still at war

Originally published
Saddam City
Hai El Mahdi, April 30, 2003 -- Follow aid work to the doorsteps of Iraq's big humanitarian problems and you find yourself in places where outsiders rarely visited in the past. Iraq's former regime clearly preferred palaces to poverty - a fact confirmed with each glance at Baghdad's skyline.

But drive past the imposing monuments - and the mosque already bigger than a domed stadium, completion date 2015 - and there are unauthorized, hidden showcases of poverty newly accessible on the outskirts of town.

In the northern reaches of Baghdad are the millions who live in and around Saddam City. Most are Iraq's majority Shiites, economic migrants who came here from the south. They were marginalized by the past government but are now increasingly organizing to make their mark on the government that lies ahead.

Your intentions are your passport

The best passport for travel to deprived areas is anti-diarrheal medicines, or other cures for the age-old plagues that take high tolls on human life, especially on the young. The average Iraqi child suffers 14 episodes of diarrhea per year, according to UNICEF.

It is an average driven up by what is happening in places like Hai El Mahdi. Like other communities now stirring with expectations, the more than 20,000 impoverished Shiite citizens here have organized themselves under their local cleric. They will soon have two small primary health clinics. One opened this week. Another will open next week. Both are signs of change in a community that went unrecognized by government authorities for 35 years.

"We have wanted to start clinics and a build a real water system here for nearly two years," said Alexander Christof, head of the small German NGO starting the clinics. "We were not allowed. The government told us this settlement does not exist."

Your entry visa to such places is your intentions. A crowd soon gathers to meet you, and greet you, but without local hosts to vouch for who you are and what you are doing the locals may well exert their newfound authority and ask you to leave. They are in no mood to suffer further abuse or neglect. Your actions must speak for themselves, must earn you your stay.

The war against disease

Hai El Mahdi stands on land that was empty because nobody wanted it and that looks as if nobody would want now. Large ponds beside the road contain a mixture of standing water and sewage. Streets never paved are curbed with rows of garbage. One of the first people you meet is a child standing with a bandaged foot on a large piece of dung.

Outside the clinic are mothers who do not normally encounter foreigners. Some of the infants in their arms don't hold their heads up. You notice thin arms and limp hair on children who should be toddlers. This is the vulnerability at the low end of the government ration scheme that fed 16 million people - two Iraqis in three - until the war. These mothers and children are still fighting their own war, against opportunistic diseases and chronic malnutrition.

There are no churches here but churches offer safe storage for relief goods and medicines needed here. On the way you stopped for supplies at one church aid depot established by ACT-Middle East Council of Churches. It is important, in today's Baghdad, to add that this church and the mosque next door were both protected from looters by people of the neighborhood.

The place to work

A team of Iraqi doctors, nurses and assistance is now at work. The German NGO behind them, APN, is supported by a people-to-people initiative called "All Our Children" which includes two U.S. members of Action by Churches Together.

"All Our Children" supports four more clinics like those in Hai El Mahdi. Christof's strategy is to start small clinics in poor neighborhoods and then turn them over as soon as possible to the health department, which was officially re-opened this week. Banking on improving security and access in the weeks ahead, APN has also begun to refurbish small water systems to treat the water supply that is spreading disease.

"The place to work in Iraq is places like this. Saddam Hussein's government wanted to keep poverty hidden and it is still likely to be forgotten now," said Christof. "There is not much money for working here and no money to be made here, but this is where Iraq's humanitarian crisis is."