For a disabled person in Iraq, Abd al-Karim Muhammad Salih has a pretty good life. He runs a profitable store for religious tourists next to the shrine of Imam Abbas in Karbala, southwest of the capital, Baghdad. The shrine is one of the most important in the Islamic world and attracts large numbers of Shi'ah tourists from southern Iraq and from Iran.
Abd al-Karim had just finished studying accountancy in July 1988 when he was conscripted into the Iraqi army and sent to the Iranian border at the Mehran crossing area. It was the last month of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, but he was soon wounded by an exploding shell. Back at the military hospital he was told he had lost the bones and muscles in his arm and that there was a risk of gangrene - so his left arm was amputated.
As a war-wounded veteran, he received about US $7 a month from the government. The disability pension was calculated against the severity of the injury. His injury was officially rated as a 70-percent injury; by comparison, losing a leg would have been rated at 100 percent.
In the years that followed he was able to set up a carpet-selling business, which he operated until he was able to open the store that he runs today. It was after Coalition forces invaded Iraq that he began to wonder about the plight of other disabled people in Karbala - both war veterans and civilians. He told IRIN that there had been official organisations for disabled people before the war, based in Baghdad and Al-Hillah, but that no money had ever reached Karbala. "Government people took the funds for themselves," he said.
Abd al-Karim soon found that there was a strong need for support services in the town. With a friend, he formed a new organisation called the Handicapped Society of Karbala, which more than 1,000 people have since joined, although he estimates there are at least 4,000 disabled people in the area.
IRIN visited his organisation’s office in Karbala - a single, bare room with no electricity and no equipment, which was given to him by the governorate. About 100 people were gathered in the lane outside. In terms of government support, injured war veterans are hardly well off, but disabled civilians in some ways face an even greater struggle.
53-year-old Abd al-Imam Muhammad lost a leg in the 1991 Gulf War after a Coalition air raid on the Rumaylah oilfield. He was not a soldier, but a firefighter, and since he was technically a civilian he was paid only US $1.50 every three months by the government. He was given a one-off US $40 payment after the recent conflict, but is now receiving nothing. His wheelchair, which cost about US $60, had to be bought with private funds.
Muhammad al-Rida Hasan is wheelchair-bound too and three of his children are also disabled, all because of congenital conditions. One of his daughters needs surgery. "I have 10 children and I don’t have work," he says. "I have to rely on friends and relatives to help me. We don’t have a home - my family is separated, living in houses belonging to my relatives. I recently started selling my furniture and I sold my television and radio to raise money."
There are few statistics on disabled people in Iraq, though a number of local and international organisations have begun building up databases, among them Handicap International.
"Normally, in most countries, the general proportion of people with disabilities in a population would be something like 10 percent - but in Iraq I would guess it’s an awful lot more," says Chris Lang of Handicap International. "There are a lot more chronic disabilities here, because they haven’t had access to drugs that would control progressive diseases - for example, with a disease like Parkinson’s, a lot of people wouldn’t have the drugs."
Adding to these are the many thousands of Iraqi veterans who were wounded in Iraq’s three recent wars. One man in a wheelchair handed IRIN a photocopied message in broken English, addressed to "Mr Commander of Karbala City". Part of it reads: "I am an Iraqi man, Najah Abd Kohait, from Karbala. Dear Sir: on 1982 I had a paralytic accident when I worked soldier in Iraqi army in Basra sector. Pension don’t sufficient to spark of life. I hope to save me and save my family, treating me in any hospital in or out of Iraq and help me materially."
Among the people at the Karbala Handicapped Society is a six-year-old boy on crutches who was wounded in the recent conflict, two blind brothers and a war veteran with one leg who has two severely disabled daughters. For all of them the main request is for money. Most are not receiving any benefits now.
"At a national level, they’re not seen as priorities, because other things are seen as more important - drugs and antibiotics - and I have a horrible feeling that they will be quite forgotten. The infrastructure is just not there to cope with it," says Lang.
Abd al-Karim is hoping to gain recognition and financial support for his society from the authorities. He is calling for higher benefits, free transport and health care, prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs, and a new centre for the organisation in Karbala. So far, he has received almost no response.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions