Diary from Baghdad

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 29, Lent 2004
By Donna Mulhearn

Baghdag, 7 February 2004. Millions of children across Iraq are suffering acute trauma as a result of the invasion, the occupation, a decade of harsh sanctions, and life under an oppressive regime.

Many of my friends, well-adjusted adults, who watched the war in intense frustration, have since been struck with profound sadness, insatiable anger and a sense of helplessness that is, at times, debilitating.

Experiencing the emotional heaviness of living in pre-war Iraq and then enduring 12 days of the ‘shock and awe’ bombing campaign of Baghdad was enough to send me nearly bonkers. My experience was typical: regular ear-splitting explosions, sleep deprivation because your bed shakes every night when the bombing starts. The windows rattle, and often smash, the roar of the planes overhead brings with it an anxiety that causes a constant clenching of teeth.

Wondering if tonight is the night you’re going to die weighs so heavy in your gut it feels constantly sick. Watching others die around you leaves you broken and empty. Trying to comfort the mourner leaves you exhausted, powerless and constantly asking: ‘did I do enough?’

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has affected my entire life. After returning home from the war last year I became so angry I could barely hold a conversation. Whenever I heard an aeroplane overhead I grimaced on the inside, covered my ears and curled up on the ground. I hated to go out and socialise, so I stopped. Although I had a book deal, I couldn’t write anymore, so I stopped. I cried every day for six months. So much it made me sick with nauseous. I was a complete basket-case. My doctor referred me to a psychiatrist.

That was me – a relatively strong, resourceful adult. Imagine how it affected the kids.

Watching others die around you leaves you broken and empty. Trying to comfort the mourner leaves you exhausted, powerless and constantly asking: ‘did I do enough?’

Like the kid who found his mother’s body lying cold in the rubble after a missile ‘accidentally’ hit the wrong house. Or the girl who started vomiting as she hid under her bed every night when the building started to shake. It shook so hard that the windows smashed all over her bedroom floor and the explosions so loud they ripped through her body and she thought her head might explode. Then it all started again the next night.

The boy who watched his mother weep uncontrollably because she was one of many women to lose her unborn baby as a result of suffering shock from the ‘terror’ bombing campaign of Baghdad.

Think of little Omar, who I met in a hospital one day during the war. He had just lost his entire family when his house was bombed. The nurses were afraid to tell him because they feared the shock would kill him. Imagine how he might be feeling now.

And there’s the 12-year-old boy who suddenly became the head of his house-hold after his soldier-father reported for duty before the war and never came home. Not even a body. His father is just a statistic now, ‘Iraqi military casualties’, a statistic that is never spoken of. His mother sends him out to the street to beg so the family can survive.

The statistic on Iraq’s age is staggering. Half the population are under 14. That means the recent war was, in effect, a war against children.

Think of the little girl who saw her little brother’s legs blown off by one of the thousands of brightly coloured cluster bombs that now lie through the fields in Iraq. Now think about the kiddies in Samara who were herded into a corner and handcuffed when the Americans raided their house in the middle of the night wielding machine guns just last week. Who watched their mother being humiliated as she was searched by foreign men and to top the humiliation, they put her out onto the street to stand in the cold in her night dress.

Think of the kids in Balad who screamed when soldiers took away their father with a sack over his head because the military ‘heard’ that he had spoke badly of the Americans. They’ve cried every night for six months because they’ve been refused a visit. He’s been detained without charge or trial. They don’t know when they will see him again. The family now lives without an income and struggles to survive.

Think of the children of Baghdad who have had four of their large family ‘amusement’ parks confiscated and transformed into ugly military bases. Where there were once Ferris Wheels there are now tanks, where there were slippery dips there are munitions stores. Baghdad Island has been re-named Bandit Island – the soldiers there have made a large skull the new logo. During the school holidays this week in Iraq large banners around Baghdad asked: ‘Where will the children play?’

Imagine how the kids in Al-Almariyia felt when their school was surrounded by tanks, the guns pointed towards them and 15 students dragged away and put into jail. All because they were in the vicinity of an anti-US demonstration held the day before. Think of the kids in Ojua, an entire village now surrounded by razor wire and concrete. They can’t leave home to play at the park unless they have permission and a pass. The tanks park outside their homes, the choppers swoop with their thunderous wings overhead all day.

Other symptoms of trauma include deficiency in initiative, less interest in school, creating trouble at home and school, reading difficulties. Apprehension, anxiety, obsessive behaviour will develop later. He says Post-Traumatic Stress could erupt after weeks, months or years. The statistic on Iraq’s age is staggering. Half the population are under 14. That means the recent war was, in effect, a war against children.

Spare a thought for the other part of the equation. A report has found US soldiers in Iraq are suffering Post-Traumatic Stress in record numbers. Suicides are unusually high. Families of the service men and women at home also suffer extreme stress and secondary trauma. But healing is possible. And we can be part of it. Our Home – Iraq’s new project is based on the fact that we believe it is our responsibility to help Iraqi children heal from their trauma and reach their full potential.

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