Basra, Asharq Al-Awsat- Anyone passing through the popular districts in Basra, the second-largest province in Iraq, cannot fail to see countless little children in the alleys. This is where they spend most of their day, especially in the poorer areas where children abound since they have nowhere else to go.
Streak faced and in dirty clothes, they play in the muddy streets while the older children wander around the market places with the signs of hunger and depravation clearly etched on their young faces. Some of these children have been forced to find dangerous and difficult jobs so that they can provide for their families, while others have devised new ways to beg and con on the streets.
Watching these children struggle to secure bread to eat has become a daily and familiar sight. This phenomenon is an extension of the “street children” who began to appear in the early nineties as a repercussion of the economic embargo* imposed on Iraq, which had a damaging impact on Iraqi families.
Such poverty and destitution has made occasions like New Year’s Eve virtually unknown to these children; they have never heard of Santa Claus and it would not occur to them to dream of resolutions for the New Year.
Mohamed Alwan, a father weighed down by five children told Asharq Al-Awsat, “Until recently families in Basra used to celebrate New Year’s Eve and there were no distinctions between Muslims, Christian and Mandeans everyone lit candles in joy and celebration.”
“In the recent years,” he added, “the declining economic situation meant that only affluent families can celebrate since it has become a luxury to do so.” He pointed out that many families and their children did not celebrate the occasion of Eid ul-Adha “because of the difficult circumstances.”
Ahmed Salem, six years old, tried to persuade people at Basra’s al Ashar market to buy his nylon bags so that he can, “earn some money to provide food for his mother and younger sister,” he said. Ahmed is one of dozens of children who stand in traffic intersections trying to sell their wares of tissue boxes, bananas, soft drinks, and chocolate.
Halima Abdul Hussein, 8 years old, speaks in a manner that does not belie the fact that she is an orphan so that she would not evoke sympathy; she said that, “I live with my three cousins and we go to the traffic intersection of al Tarbia Street from early in the morning until the evening so we can earn our livelihood,” and confirmed that she really wanted to go to school.
As for Haider Ibrahim who is an auto mechanic, he said that he has been forced to resort to, “hiring young children who are the sons of relatives so that it may help ease conditions for their families during these trying times. They learn skills that can help them secure a living in the future.” He also pointed out that many of the families seek to teach their children skills and crafts over other professions so that they may have something to practice in the future.
According to Shehab Ahmed who is an educational counselor, “thousands of children are victims of the former and present regime, most of them are orphans who have lost their parents in wars or acts of violence,” he said.
He also pointed out that all the censuses indicated that the number of children has risen in the population, warning of the emergence of a new generation of illiterate children among the Iraqi communities while the neighboring countries head towards civilization and progress.
Ali al Husseini who is the official in charge of Basra’s Federation of Trade Unions said that, “the labor laws prohibit children from working. This phenomenon in a result of three successive wars that began with the Iranian-Iraq war and has increased with the entry of the American forces into Iraq in April 2003.
He added that, “Death, disability and unemployment amongst families has resulted in making these children the only chance for their families to earn a livelihood. They are forced to work dangerous and laborious jobs for long hours and low wages.
Hashim al Zamil, a poet, views that, “politics has deprived us of even watching our children play on the swings or in the parks and gardens. It has forced them to wander the streets in tattered clothes, and this has become the only image of the children of Basra.
* The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) imposed an embargo on Iraq in the aftermath of its invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990