Starving orphans rescued
One photograph shows a skin-and-bones boy lying on a bare floor, leashed like a dog to the pink bars of an unoccupied crib. Another shows boys curled naked on the ground, one of them smeared with human waste.
The scenes were ghastly. But almost as jarring was the response of an Iraqi government minister called upon Wednesday to explain how a state-run orphanage in the capital could have kept two dozen children in such conditions.
Proving that not even orphans are off-limits to the political sniping that permeates life here, the minister of labor and social welfare accused U.S. troops and the media of exaggerating the situation and distributing the photographs for political gain.
“Are they really concerned about how well the children are treated in that shelter, or is it just propaganda for their alleged kindness?” Mahmoud Mohammed Jawad Radi said to reporters after the U.S. military released the photographs.
A military statement said the pictures were taken June 10 after U.S. and Iraqi soldiers were tipped off about conditions at the orphanage in the Fajr neighborhood of west Baghdad.
Twenty-four boys, ages 3 to 15, were discovered. Most were emaciated and weak, and human waste covered the floors, the statement said. In a room of the orphanage, shelves of food and clean clothing lay untouched, to be hoarded and sold by adult employees, the military alleged.
According to the statement, employees said the boys had been there less than a month, having been shifted from a nearby coed orphanage when it was decided that boys and girls should live separately.
Radi said it was U.S. troops who had brutalized the children by raiding the building in the middle of the night.
“Of course the shelter is not as expected, as it is newly opened and still lacks a lot of services,” he said when asked about the lack of fans or air-conditioning where the boys were sleeping. He did not explain why the children were lying on the floor instead of in the cribs with mattresses lining the walls.
Standing beside Radi was the orphanage director, Diyaa Abdul Amir, who denied that the children were mistreated. He said that the photographs released by the military focused on two boys suffering from skin infections but that the rest were healthy.
To those who work with Iraq’s growing legions of orphans and homeless children, whatever the truth about the photographs, the case illustrates the splintering of family and social ties as the war leaves extended families economically stretched and unable to take in additional relatives.
There are no verifiable statistics on orphans or homeless children in Iraq, but Claire Hajaj of the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, said casualty trends indicate that the problem has soared along with Iraq’s violence. Recent U.N. casualty reports estimated violence claims 100 Iraqis a day and that 90% of them are men.
Based on that estimate, “you would be looking at tens of thousands of children losing a parent due to violence in 2006 alone,” Hajaj said. As the number of deaths increases, she said, the capacity to care for orphaned children diminishes nationwide.
Husham Dahabi knows this well. He runs a private home in Baghdad called Dar al Bait al Amin where he oversees three dozen children and teenagers. Many of them had fled state-run institutions they had been placed in after losing relatives to the war.
The sectarianism and suspicion that pervade Iraq affect the children. A 7-year-old named Omer changed his name to Ammar to hide the fact that he is a Sunni Arab, Dahabi said. The home is in a Shiite Muslim district.
Dahabi and his volunteers know the hide-outs of homeless children and go searching for them at the cafes where they look for piecemeal jobs, or on the streets where they scavenge for soda cans to sell to factories.
“They do not come to me,” he said. “I go to them. It is very hard to win their trust.”
One resident of the home is 2-year-old Mosa, whose mother died of leukemia and whose father was killed last year by a bomb. Mosa’s uncles said they could not afford to care for him. Another, Saif, 4, was brought to Dahabi several months ago by a temporary guardian who had found him crying and bleeding at the scene of a car bombing that killed his parents.
Some struggle to adjust to life in a sheltered place after living on the streets. When he checks on the children at night, Dahabi says, he often finds them with their T-shirts pulled down to cover their bodies, a habit of street children trying to protect themselves against the elements.
“In their unconscious minds, they cannot get rid of living in the streets,” he said.
As for the boys found at the recently raided institution, members of the local Neighborhood Advisory Council have arranged for them to return to the coed orphanage for the time being. It was unclear what happened to the orphanage’s staff members. Radi said some had fled, not because they had done anything wrong but because they feared the U.S. troops.
Times staff writer Saad Khalaf contributed to this report.