Disney cartoon characters smile and play on the walls of the al-Wazeria Orphanage in Baghdad's Adhamiya district. But the bright world of make believe is in clear contrast to the real life traumas many of the orphanage’s residents have just been through in recent weeks.
For days, fighting raged around the orphanage its director, Amira al-Saraf, said. “We were terrified. There were so many different sounds - bombs, missiles, tanks, rockets. There was no electricity and then looters.”
In the end, the children and remaining staff put up a large sign outside the complex saying: “We are orphans – please do not kill us.” Amira said 28 of the 38 children had been sent to other relatives in Iraq when war seemed imminent but for the remaining 10 orphans, there was nowhere else to stay.
With just three staff left to care for them, the children often huddled together, hugging each other, praying, reading from the Quran and singing songs. To block out the sound of the war they turned the television’s volume up, until the electricity was cut. Before the war, Amira said she had started preparing the children for what might happen but despite this, several of the orphans were particularly terrified and traumatised.
And even though the fighting stopped more than a month ago, Amira said the effects on the children are clear, with staff having greater problems getting them to do what they ask. Many are afraid at night, so the orphanage tries to runs its generator to provide light, but fuel is in short supply.
At the moment, the government orphanage is managing to survive. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has been providing it with food to add to the stocks the orphanage already had. And a generous family living nearby gave all the 32 staff US $10 each because they are not receiving any wages.
But Amira said she expected added pressures soon as there would undoubtedly be an influx of new orphans following the conflict. The orphanage can take up to 80 children and she was confident it would cope, with the continued help and kindness of aid agencies and the Iraqi people.
Thirteen-year-old Abdul Rahman Ziad didn’t need a war – his life had already had enough sorrow. His father was killed before he was born and his mother died as she gave birth to him. He has no home, only the orphanage. Abdul said the war was the worst event in his life, leaving him terrified and worrying that he would die.
“It was like an eruption. Now it is better though and I hope there is no more war in Iraq.” UNICEF’s assistant education and child protection officer in Baghdad, Ghada Bashir Kachachi, told IRIN that four of the five orphanages in Iraq were now
Three of the orphanages had closed during the war as staff could not stay and the children were sent out of Baghdad to extended families for its duration. She said many children who had experienced the war would need help and getting them back to school was a priority so they could have some normalcy and routine in their life.
UNICEF was doing what it could to support the orphanages now there was no help from the government or ministries that previously looked after them. It was repairing generators, providing fuel and donating things such as food and cleaning materials.
A UNICEF officer, Hatim George Hatim, said that the war would in all probability create more orphans. The traditional safety net for these children was the extended family but with the collapse of the Iraqi economy, many were now too poor to cope with another child.
As well as orphans, he pointed to a number of other areas where children could face increased problems in the new Iraq.
Initial observations were that there had been a rise in the number of street children who were hanging around hotels, busy intersections, mosques and US military checkpoints, Hatim said.
And when economic activity did start to pick up again, he said it could be expected that the problem of working children would be more widespread and increase in comparison with pre-war levels. If a family had lost a father or other earning male in the war, children would be forced to go and earn money somehow. And for employers it would be cheaper to hire children than adults, Hatim added.
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