Violence in Iraq is tearing families apart and destroying the country’s economy, two major factors giving rise to a mass of marginalised street children, child specialists say. Once on the streets, children can easily fall prey to gangs involved in drugs, violence and prostitution.
“Children are the first victims of violence and they are particularly vulnerable psychologically speaking. So it’s easy for an adult who would like to do so to manipulate and use children. There was already the case of a child who was used as a suicide bomber in late 2005, for example,” Cedric Turlan, information officer for the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq (NCCI), said.
Ali Mussawi, president of the local NGO Keeping Children Alive (KCA), said that since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 there has been an increase in the number of children used by criminal gangs. Mussawi said that a major reason for this was that many homeless children quickly turn to drugs, including sniffing glue or vapours from liquids such as paint, which have large amounts of intoxicants.
|These children are starving to death and the gangs use their desperate situation to force them into a drugs and sex world.|
Mussawi added that some criminal gangs offer these children drugs in exchange for sexual favours.
“[Street] boys and girls are in a desperate situation. The Ministry of Interior cannot control such groups and the losers are the children who cannot escape,” he said. “It is a torture. These children are starving to death and the gangs use their desperate situation to force them into a drugs and sex world.”
Officials at the Ministry of Interior said they were on the look out for such gangs and have been punishing the ones already arrested but they did not want to give more detailed information.
Sami Rubaie, 12, lives on the streets of Baghdad. He said he ran away from home because he could not stand the beatings he got from his father for not bringing home enough money from begging all day. He soon turned to glue sniffing. To support his habit, he recently joined a gang and now men have sex with him in exchange for glue and money.
“I cry every time a man has sex with me and they usually hit me because I am crying. After I do it, my boss gives me a good quantity of glue and around US $3 dollars for food. I know what I’m doing is wrong but it’s better than living with daily beatings from my father for not bringing him enough money,” Sami said.
Several NGOs are working to support street children psychologically. There are also projects to return street children to their families. However, lack of funds and the increasing insecurity aid workers face have left many of these projects unimplemented.
|I cry every time a man has sex with me and they usually hit me because I am crying.|
There a number of ways in which Iraqi children can end up living on the streets. Some are orphaned and left with no-one to support them. Others are escaping violence and sexual abuse at home. Not all are lured into drugs and sexual acts on the streets, but all are vulnerable nonetheless.
Like Sami, Muhammad Sa’adek, 12, ran away from violence at home in the hope of a better life on the streets of Baghdad. He escaped an abusive father with his 10-year-old sister Nahila a year ago.
“My mother left us to go and live with another man. My father took us from her and beat us all the time, taking revenge for my mother’s behaviour,” Muhammad said. “My sister suffered the most. On top of forcing her to clean and cook alone, one day I saw him forcing her to play with his penis,” Muhammad said.
Muhammad took his sister and ran from the Dora Alwai district of the capital to the Dora neighbourhood on the opposite side of the city, so that their father, a mechanic, would never find them.
“We went to where our mother is living but she told us to go home because her new husband doesn’t like children and she had already given us to my father. When I told her what my father was doing, she just said that he is our father and can do whatever he wants,” Muhammad said. “So, we found the streets are a happier place to live than with our family, even if we have to beg to live.”