"Daily life in Baghdad became very hard after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, especially when the sanctions went into effect,” said Sattar, “and it has continued to be hard ever since.” Sattar is an Iraqi who is now in New York City pursuing a master’s degree in engineering. We were sitting across from each other at a table in the dining room of the Maryhouse Catholic Worker on a fall evening. At the other end of the room, one of the residents was watching television and others were talking quietly among themselves. The fact that we were in the dining room led naturally to a discussion about the food shortages that have long prevailed in Sattar’s war-torn country. “The government grants a monthly allotment of basics like flour, rice and cooking oil that we can buy at reduced prices,” he said, “but for other foods, like chicken, eggs and meat, the prices are too high for many people, partly because the value of the dinar has dropped from its prewar value.” Fruits and vegetables are available in the local markets but, again, at high cost because “farmers fear to bring their produce into the city because of the violence.”
Reports on health conditions in Iraq often speak of heightened malnutrition among children. A Norwegian research group found that acute malnutrition among children under 5 has almost doubled since the U.S.-led invasion. “There is simply not enough food for everybody,” Sattar said, “and the situation is particularly hard for those without salaries.”
Sattar’s own family in Iraq lives with his brother’s, a block from his parents’ home in an outer area of Baghdad. Sharing space and limited resources, he explained, is essential in times of scarcity like the present, a scarcity made worse by the high levels of unemployment. Partly as a consequence of joblessness, he noted, crimes like stealing have gone up. So has kidnapping, which often involves ransom demands. But the kidnappings have also been aimed at educated Iraqis, like university professors and doctors. In over 70 kidnapping cases, those abducted have been murdered. “When will the country have such people educated again?” Sattar wondered.
Adding to the difficulties of daily life are the ongoing shortages of electricity. “It is often off for four hours and then on for only two,” he said. “In some parts of Iraq it can be off for as much as two days at a time.” Those who can afford to, buy small generators to provide light, but they serve another purpose too: namely, to operate pumps to bring water into homes. But again, because of the wartime conditions, clean water is lacking.
“The water comes from the Tigris and the Euphrates, and before the war it was always clean,” Sattar observed. But now, he went on to say, factories on their banks empty their waste into these rivers, causing pollution, and the treatment plants no longer have the purification capacity needed to render the water safe. The decades-long erosion of old pipes has added to the problem. “Before 1991,” he said, “the water was always potable.”
While the lack of clean drinking water has undoubtedly led to health problems, it does not explain the high incidence of cancer and birth defects among children. A study by the College of Medicine at Basra University found that during the 1990’s the incidence of leukemia among children in southern Iraq doubled. Iraqi physicians believe the soaring rates may stem from radiation associated with the widespread use of depleted uranium munitions by American and British forces during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Compounding the problem, Sattar said, is the fact that medicines needed for treatment are both hard to obtain and expensive. Before the gulf war, people could be treated without charge at Baghdad’s hospitals, he added, but no longer.
The war and subsequent upheavals have also exacted a high price in terms of psychological damage. “If you live in Baghdad,” Sattar said, “you always feel you could walk into a suicide bomber’s attack. You don’t know where or when. You might be driving, and it could happen right next to you.” He continued: “Everyone is afraid—and the closer you are to the center of Baghdad, the greater the danger, and not just in Baghdad, but in other cities too.”
Several of Sattar’s relatives have been injured in attacks. “One who was in his car was shot in the arm, leg and back during a street battle,” he said. The injuries confined him to bed for almost a year. Another relative was shot in the leg. The U.S. Defense Department has estimated that over 26,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed just since January 2004.
Sattar’s feeling about the continuing deadly violence is sorrow rather than bitterness. As a practicing Muslim, he prays to God “to bring peace to my country.” He concluded our conversation by saying, “All religions point to the same road, one that tells us not to kill or to hurt others.” So far, that road has yet to be followed.