Hamza Hendawi / Associated Press – 2004-10-26 08:41:17
BAGHDAD (October 23, 2004) — For the children of Baghdad, it’s a cruel dilemma: Cooped up at home for fear of violence and kidnapping, they can’t even go down the street for ice cream, and many are under strict orders to stay away from US soldiers lest they get caught in the crossfire.
But when the soldiers hand out candy, sneakers and footballs, the temptation can be enormous — and fatal.
Mohammed Hamid learned that lesson when the Americans came to the al-Amel neighborhood to dedicate a new sewage system. The 9-year-old joined the rush of kids to the soldiers, snagged some candy and traded a worthless Iraqi bank note bearing Saddam Hussein’s image for a dollar bill.
Then two car bombs went off and 35 children, 30 of them Mohammed’s schoolmates, were killed.
The tragedy that befell al-Amel three weeks ago highlighted the predicament of Iraq’s children who, after years of deprivation caused by more than a decade of harsh UN sanctions, are now caught in a conflict that is robbing them of their childhood — even their lives.
War in a City of Children
Children under 18 make up roughly half of Baghdad’s estimated 6 million people. Together with grown-ups, they endure the daily mayhem of insurgency and violent crime, and an occupation whose counterinsurgency raids are seen by Iraqis as needlessly heavy-handed.
Because their parents fear kidnappings and explosions, many of Baghdad’s children have been forced to give up even the simplest pleasures, like hanging out with their friends after school.
Fatima Saadoun, 13, girl from Baghdad’s Zayouna district, says she spent most of her three-month summer break indoors for fear of kidnapping. When she returned to school Oct. 2, she found that eight of her classmates were absent, kept home by parents afraid of kidnappings.
US ‘Invited’ the Bombing at al-Amel
The al-Amel bombing revealed the vicious circle that bedevils US efforts to rebuild Iraq.
The sewage system was a classic hearts-and-minds effort that went wrong. The Americans hoped for a pleasant ceremony outside the al-Saada Elementary School and set out chairs for participants. That, says headmaster Fadhil Abbas Naeema, was a mistake, because it advertised their presence to the insurgents.
“I predicted something bad will take place,” he said in an interview. “The Americans put chairs in the street, inviting the hunters to hunt.”
This in turn spawned conspiracy theories that the bombing was somehow an American plot. “The Americans made that explosion and I do not know why,” said Mohammed, the 9-year-old. “The Americans gave us sweets to tempt us and then blow us up,” said his older sister, Nour, a fifth grader.
Such chatter is probably picked up from parents, who are quick to blame the Americans for everything that goes wrong. If they attach any guilt to the bombers, they keep it to themselves for fear of reprisals. Some may have difficulty accepting that the violence is being carried out by their own people; many resent the tactics of US soldiers when under attack.
Courting the Youngest Hearts and Minds
And yet in many ways, children are the American soldiers’ best friends.
They wave and give them thumbs-up salutes, and most soldiers respond in kind. A major plank in the US military’s effort to win over Iraqis is focused on children, who get toys and school supplies. American soldiers have repaired, painted and provided power generators to dozens of schools across Iraq. In some cases, they stood guard outside girls’ schools to deter kidnappers.
Seif Ibrahim, who looks about 12, is a school dropout and a part-time shoeshine boy who hangs around American soldiers guarding a Baghdad compound where foreign contractors and journalists stay. He has picked up English, walks with a soldier’s swagger and likes American pop music.
“I love these Americans,” said Ibrahim. “They are kind to me and always give me sweets and food.”
On the other hand, Hamid, the bombing survivor, saw a close friend named Laith lying on the ground, blood pouring from his head. He now loses sleep and is afraid to go to school, according to his mother, Faiza Abdul-Redha.
The boy says: “I want to be a pilot to fly an Iraqi warplane and fight the Americans.”
And the more bombs go off, the more parents keep their children away from Americans.
About a week after the al-Amel bombing, when word got around that American troops were back in the neighborhood, parents rushed to the school to get their children. Headmaster Naeema said he calmed them down, sent them home and kept the kids in class without telling them there were Americans outside.
“It would have frightened the children and prevented them from concentrating,” he said.
Most Baghdad schools have armed guards. Gates remain firmly shut all day and all visitors are rigorously checked. Police sweep schools for explosives and assemblies are kept short.
Ali Rasheed, a mechanical engineer, says he or his wife accompany their children — Basmah, 10, and Ahmed, 7 — to and from school every day, even though it’s only 200 yards from their home.
“We give them the same set of instructions daily,” he said. “‘Don’t go anywhere near the American soldiers, don’t pick up any objects you spot on the ground, don’t stand outside the school gate and don’t sit next to the windows.'”
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