Greasy hands and hungry stomachs in Baghdad

Published: 11 June 2003 0:00 CET

Till Mayer in Baghdad

Ammar Yusef looks at his oily hands and the calluses on his palms. His fingernails are black, the skin rough like sandpaper. Sometimes these hands remind him of the vice in his tiny workshop. Ammar knows that his hands are not a pretty sight, but working with them, he was always able to feed his family.

People from all over his neighbourhood used to visit his shop to get their electrical devices and radiators fixed. Every morning, when the first rays of the sun immerse the shabby Al Washash district, on the edge of Baghdad, in a soft morning light, Ammar Yusef turns the key in the padlock of his workshop, the metal door squeaking pitifully.

In the dim light inside, used radiators and dusty old spare parts are lined up neatly in rows. Here, the hard-working 36-year-old welds and solders until dusk, frequently glancing out at the street in front of his workshop, hoping that a passing car might stop, that someone might drop by with something that needs repair.

“Since the last war ended, most of my regular customers don’t come by anymore,” laments Ammar. “Nobody has any money. What I earn these days is not even enough to pay the rent on my tiny apartment. I don’t know where the money will come from to buy food for my family.”

The two small rooms where his family lives cost him US$ 40 a month. For this head of family, such an amount would be a small fortune. On his bed sleep his newborn twins, Abdelkader and Alesha, swaddled like two little innocent bundles of life.

With these recent additions, his family now numbers eight. His wife Nibras Salah Edeen gazes sadly at these two youngest members. “They are just too small, too fragile,” she says, her voice filled with anxiety.

Just two weeks ago, Nibras gave birth in the Iraqi Red Crescent maternity hospital. Her treatment was given without charge, and the attending doctor, Dr. Nada Al Sheikly, also waived the delivery fee.

The maternity hospital provides a safe and secure haven for pregnant women and young mothers in a very unpredictable world. Thanks to the International Federation, working in cooperation with the German Red Cross, which is supporting the desperately needed rehabilitation of this facility, this service will continue to be available free of charge.

The vital funding is part of the overall Red Cross Red Crescent support to an Iraqi health system that has suffered as a result of more than a decade of sanctions and from three wars in the last 20 years.

Just a hundred metres from the hospital are the rubble and twisted steel, daily reminders of the recent conflict. Tanks rumble past the fallen statues of Saddam Hussein, past the audacious palaces that are now a broken and empty shambles. Sometimes Ammar and his wife cannot fathom how fast their Baghdad has changed.

Their world has never been one of palaces. Their lives have always been a daily struggle for survival, a struggle that grows more difficult with every passing day. The challenges Ammar faces seem almost overwhelming. Not only is his income a fraction of what it was, but his chronic blood pressure goes unattended since he can no longer afford the medicine.

“All of my problems are coming at once,” the father of five complains. One of the doctors at the clinic has told him that he may be able to get the medicine he needs and food for his family, free of cost, from the local Red Crescent distribution centre, where the needy and the most vulnerable receive first priority.

“Perhaps there is hope,” says Ammar unconvincingly – he has been disappointed too many times before.

When the air raids finally ended, Ammar thought that everything would be better, that the suffering of war would finally be over. But that was not the case.

An air defence unit was based in his neighbourhood, and the ammunition it fired into the sky was old and had been stored incorrectly. Consequently, unexploded ordinance hailed down onto nearby roofs, crashing through into homes, including his own apartment building.

“Now there is ammunition lying about everywhere,” he reports. “I am scared that one of my own children might play with these remains. There have already been serious accidents.”
The most earnest hope in the city is for a sense of security. Yes, the rumble of the air raids has ended, but not the fear in the darkness of the night.

“There are still looters. They even raid our poor neighbourhood,” Ammar says. But there is nothing for the looters to find in his home. All they could take would be an old refrigerator, an ancient television set, a damaged table and some thin floor mats.

“Looters would not be interested in our few belongings, but my great fear is that they will find and steal my tools,” Ammar says with a shudder. “If that happens, there will be no way left for me to feed my family.”

Ammar’s son Salah enters the workshop and grasps the large, greasy hand of his father. This hollow-cheeked six-year-old clearly knows what it means to fall asleep on an empty stomach. “The worst thing for a father,” says Ammar in barely a whisper “is to see your own children starving.”

Related links:

Iraq humanitarian crisis

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