Iraqi children suffering psychological damage

BAGHDAD (IRIN) — For two months, Obeid Jaafar Khalifa, 52, has been worrying about how he will cope with looking after his deceased brother’s four children. Obeid already has six of his own children to look after.

“In total, I have to feed 10 children in addition to my wife and me,” said Khalifa, an employee at Iraq’s Agriculture Ministry. He took over responsibility for the children when a car bomb killed their parents five months ago.

The example of Khalifa’s taking in his brother’s children highlights the plight of children orphaned by the violence in Iraq. The UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF) said in its update earlier this month on the plight of Iraqi children that the number of war orphans was rising because of the high civilian death toll.

UNICEF is increasingly concerned that the number of vulnerable children in Iraq has outstripped the country’s capacity to care for them.

“Families left to care for children who have lost one or both parents are already stressed to the limit, unable to cope with extra burdens. Many of Iraq’s skilled social workers have been leaving the country,” the report said.

Citing the UN’s civilian casualty figures for 2006 which indicate up to 100 civilian deaths per day, UNICEF said: “Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of children will have lost at least one parent. And if violence continues at current levels, even more will lose a parent in 2007.”

“Such children will be automatically deprived of their rights and are likely to fall into potentially harmful forms of labor,” said Kholoud Nasser Muhssin, a researcher on family and children’s affairs affiliated with the University of Baghdad.

“Some 60-70 percent of Iraqi children in Iraq are suffering from psychological problems and their future is not bright,” Muhssin said.

“Some lost their parents or one of their family members or relatives; others witnessed traumatic events or were subjected to sexual harassment,” Muhssin added.

“Iraq’s conflict is taking an immense and unnoticed psychological toll on children and youth that will have long-term consequences,” said Bilal Youssif Hamid, a Baghdad-based child psychiatrist.

“The lack of resources means the social impact will be very bad and the coming generations, especially this one, will be aggressive,” Hamid added.

According to UNICEF, half of Iraq’s 4 million people who have fled their homes since 2003 are children. Many were killed inside their schools or playgrounds, and gangs routinely kidnap children for ransom.

Since the beginning of this year, Hamid has treated 310 children and teenagers for psychological problems, most ranging in age from 6 to 16. In the past year he has seen about 750 cases.

Last year the World Health Organization conducted a survey of 600 children aged 3-10 in Baghdad. Forty-seven percent were found to have been exposed to a major traumatic event over the past two years.

Of this group, 14 percent showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. In a second study of 1,090 adolescents in the northern city of Mosul, 30 percent showed symptoms of the disorder.

Many of the children Hamid treats have witnessed killings. They have anxiety problems and suffer from depression. Some have recurring nightmares and wet their beds. Others have problems learning at school.