Iraq

World child refugee populace to grow with Iraq war

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By David Morgan

WASHINGTON, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Batul al-Zubeidy is the kind of teen-ager who seems bright and capable enough to get pretty much anything she wants out of life.

But the 18-year-old Iraqi Shi'ite says her future has already been determined by what happened when the 1991 Gulf War added her name to the world's ever-growing list of child war refugees.

She was not quite 6 years old when U.S. warplanes destroyed her family's home in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf. Ironically, the bombing came after her community had rebelled against Saddam Hussein at the behest of Washington, only to be crushed when U.S. officials chose not to support them.

Soon, she and her family joined an exodus by thousands of Shi'ite refugees who fled across 200 miles (320 km) of desert to Saudi Arabia, with hostile Iraqi forces in pursuit.

Then came seven long years of fear, disease and confinement inside the barbed-wire compound of a Saudi refugee camp, where she helped nurse her father to a tenuous recovery after two heart attacks amid a scarcity of food, water and medical care.

"Going through that life experience, I became a different person," said Batul, now a driven U.S. high school senior who hopes to become a cardiac surgeon and return to the Middle East to work among refugees.

"It opened my mind to see the suffering, what people are forced to go through," she told Reuters in an interview, tugging distractedly at the beige "hejab" headscarf that frames her expressive features.

"It also taught me not to fear what there is in life. It doesn't matter if I will be killed tomorrow for doing what I want to do. I'm going to do it. I'm determined to fight injustice. That is a very important lesson."

LIFE IN THE UNITED STATES

Batul spoke no English in 1997, when her family was resettled in the United States. But she has since mastered the language to become a student leader with advanced-placement status at the School Without Walls, a public school five blocks from the White House, where U.S. President George W. Bush and his aides are planning the next U.S. move against Baghdad.

She is already taking college-level courses at George Washington University, including one in Hebrew.

"Batul is one of the strongest young women I've ever met," said assistant principal Sheila Harris. "I've watched her for years, and she's blossomed into a wonderful young lady."

She is also an exceptionally lucky young woman, compared with many of the 20 million children whose lives the United Nations says have been turned upside-down by armed conflicts in 50 countries from Colombia to Uganda, Gaza, Afghanistan and Burma.

While Batul's experience bolstered her self-confidence, thanks to her family and a new life in the United States, the United Nations says half of all child war refugees suffer grave psychological scars. Among those at risk are five children born to one of Batul's sisters who are still in Saudi Arabia.

And with U.S. forces poised for another full-scale war against Baghdad, humanitarian relief agencies fear that up to 1.2 million more children aged 17 and under could soon be living among displaced war victims within Iraq or as refugees in neighboring lands.

"The stuff some kids have seen and participated in is so horrific, I wouldn't know how a human being deals with it," said Chris Conrad, U.S. humanitarian aid agency CARE's director for southern and western Africa.

"Many have no social safety net whatsoever. No parents, no brothers, no sisters. Whatever help they get is at the good will of whoever happens to be providing it."

U.N. statistics suggest that 2 million children under 18 have been killed in armed conflicts around the world over the past decade. Another 6 million have been seriously injured.

PRESSURE TO JOIN MILITIAS

For many, war means separation from family and a childhood spent in dirty, dangerous refugee camps where older children are often pressured to join militias or extremist groups.

"Agencies that work in conflict situations tend to focus more on younger children, so the group that gets marginalized and has less access to people trying to meet their needs are adolescent-age youth" said Mike Pozniak, an education adviser to Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services.

An estimated 300,000 children live precariously as child soldiers. And if war returns to Iraq, international aid workers say fewer Iraqi child refugees will be likely to find new homes in the United States or other Western countries where fears of terrorism are running high.

That could leave more youths open to the rhetoric of Osama bin Laden, who purportedly has already called on Iraqi Muslims to rise up against the United States and its allies.

"Given the fact that these young people don't have many opportunities, if someone is suddenly there believing in them and saying, 'I need you for something,' that is going to be very attractive to them," said Allison Pillsbury of the New York-based Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

Batul, who left Saudi Arabia's Rafha refugee camp before her 13th birthday, knew political hardship long before the destruction of her home in Najaf.

The youngest of eight children, she was born in an Iraqi jail as the daughter of the late Shi'ite dissident Hamza Zubeidy, who himself spent years in prison for opposing Saddam Hussein in the 1980s when the Iraqi leader was a valued Middle East ally of the Reagan administration.

Batul is still haunted by the memory of armed Iraqi soldiers bursting into her parents' bedroom when she was a toddler, and her looking up into a ring of gun barrels pointed at the head of her screaming mother.

With memories like that, one might expect her to be hopeful that a U.S.-led war would bring needed change to Iraq. But she opposes war, saying the U.S. government has offered the Iraqi people little more than suffering and betrayal up to now.

"U.S. policy is hard for us to understand, because you supported Saddam Hussein financially and politically in the '70s and '80s, when you knew he was oppressing and killing us," she said. "War just means more destruction and the killing of more innocent people. You're talking about taking over that region of the world, and we're very scared of that."

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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