Iraq's new generation of despair

The fourth of a five-part series As US troops withdraw and Iraq tries to find its footing, it must heal the wounds of the thousands of youths who have spent years living in fear.

Young members of the Mohammed family in Baghdad's Shakook squatter settlement.
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BAGHDAD // The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 forced children like Mu'umin Mazen to grow up quickly, often brutally. As US troops stormed through southern Iraq and bombs rained down from the air, Mu'umin and his family drove to the airport in Baghdad to take food to his uncle, a soldier in the Iraqi army. But they found him and his commanding officer dead in a vehicle the Americans had attacked. It was the first time Mu'umin had ever seen a dead person. He was 11.

Later, in 2003, US soldiers arrested Mu'umin's father. When he failed to return home for a year, the family held a funeral for him. Twelve months later, he showed up one night on the doorstep, weak from beatings by US interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison. Three years later, Mu'umin himself was arrested by US soldiers as he chased two thieves who had stolen his father's car. For three months, he was held in jail where his jailers beat him and accused him of being a terrorist.

In 2007, after homes belonging to his and other Sunni families in Baghdad's Amriya neighbourhood were taken over by members of al Qa'eda, Mu'umin joined a militia and took up a Kalashnikov to take back the homes. Formal education is now out of the question, Mu'umin said recently. "I can't go back to school after what happened to me," he explained. Now he does odd jobs and spends every night playing billiards and smoking hooka pipes in a cafe in the Mansur district.

Mu'umin's life is just one illustration of the traumas that the country has suffered, first under the despotic rule of Saddam Hussein, then from the US-led invasion in 2003. The ensuing inter-communal warfare and division of Iraq's cities into sectarian enclaves has allowed for no semblance of a normal youth, not only for Mu'umin but for hundreds of thousands of other young Iraqis. The statistics are staggering. Slightly more than 300,000 Iraqi youths between the ages of 10 and 18 have never attended school, and a recent United Nations survey found that 85 per cent of Iraqi youth do not know how to use a computer.

For an untold number of Iraqi children, violence and bloodshed have been constant. At the height of the sectarian violence in 2006-2007, 3,000 people a month were being killed. Standing in one of Amriya's squares, Abudi Hussein, 15, recalled watching people being executed there by al Qa'eda, including a woman. "I felt afraid from both - the Americans and al Qa'eda. The Americans killed a child in Amriya because he was playing with a toy gun," Abudi said.

The regular exposure to violence, and the displacement caused by it, has created a special category of children, especially in the classroom, said a school principal in Amriya. These children, he said, "are hurt from the inside". "They are different from other students. The way they behave and the way they are is all different," said the principal, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised by the ministry of education to speak with reporters.

Fear still visits them regularly. "Some of them wake up at night. When they hear gunfire they just keep screaming. When a Humvee passes by outside, they scream, even when they are in the classroom." Among those Iraqi young people who have been subjected to high levels of violence, depression, hopelessness and the dread that their world could come crashing down, the fears seldom go away. Indeed, even now, an estimated 200 to 300 Iraqi civilians are still killed in bomb attacks and assassinations every month. With the withdrawal of most US troops, fears of still further violence have escalated. Sales of personal-protection weapons in Fallujah, Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk are reported to have increased by 30 per cent to 50 per cent in the past four months.

"We tell them to study and focus on their school, especially the ones in the last year of high school," said Ms Rasha, a teacher in Amriya who asked only that her last name be used. "They say, 'What is the benefit? Let's say we get into a good university, can we go study in that university?' The security factor is the main factor that is really affecting their lives. They are really feeling down."

With Shiites enjoying new political clout in the post-Saddam era, sectarianism shapes the expectations of Sunni children, too, Ms Rasha said, noting that most of her students are named Omar, a common Sunni name. "They say, 'My name is Omar. When the teacher reads my name on the exam papers, they will mark it as failed and throw it away'." Perhaps the most troubled group of Iraqi youth are orphans. Although there is no official data, Iraqi officials estimate there are three million orphans along with at least one million widows.

The Ethar Association, a non-governmental organisation in Amriya, provides aid to orphans, as well as widows, the poor and Sunni families displaced by sectarian fighting. The organisation, founded in 2004 by Um Omar Bakri, a chemist, has more than 2,000 orphans in Amriya registered on its books, up from 600 before 2006. Of the 2,000, 60 per cent to 70 per cent had lost a parent to fire by coalition forces and the rest "were killed by terrorists", Ms Bakri said.

She has no doubts that the legacies of Iraq's upheaval and fighting for all of its young will endure. "Obviously these kind of things have more impact on the spirit of children than they do on older people. I don't think that it will just go away and the wounds will heal quickly," she said. Instead, Ms Bakri worries, these children of war will be easily exploited, setting the stage for future rounds of bloodshed.

"If they took your house, you have endured violence, you don't have a home, you will be violent and listen to anybody who gives you money."