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The sectarian and ethnic divisions among Iraqi politicians have now become so deep that trust across the sectarian and ethnic schisms, Shia, Sunni, Kurdish, is now practically non-existent. Any action or statement by any politician, whether well-intentioned or not, is viewed through this destructive prism. Where do we go from here? Is there any action that all politicians could agree upon that could not possibly be interpreted as suspicious?
Of all the statistics that describe the devastation wreaked upon Iraq by the illegal war, I find the figures describing the plight of Iraqi children the most troubling and heart-wrenching. These children are the ones who will determine what sort of future Iraq will have. Their well-being, or lack of it, will impact on the lives of all Iraqis regardless of sect, religion, or ethnicity.
A study by the Iraqi Society of Psychiatrists in collaboration with the World Health Organization found that 70% of children (sample 10,000) in the Sha’ab section of North Baghdad are suffering from trauma-related symptoms. Even if this study is not completely replicated in the whole of Iraq, it clearly shows that huge numbers of children are growing up with mental problems. Many of these children have seen close family members killed; they have walked in streets where they have seen dead and mutilated bodies just lying around. If left untreated, what impact will these mental problems have on the future of Iraq? First, of course, the suffering, the stress, and the depression that afflicts these children must be alleviated. All of Iraqi society must see that providing expert medical intervention to help these children cope is a moral imperative.
The effect of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is bad enough for professional soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It is hard to imagine the effects on a child growing up amongst such carnage. In macho Iraqi society, such children, particularly the boys, tend to suffer in silence for fear of being labeled wimps. In any case, expertise to treat such cases is woefully inadequate in Iraq.
It is unfortunate that Iraqi society and possibly the entire Arab world is pervaded by a macho culture that sees people who express fear, anxiety and emotional distress as weak, particularly boys and men. Education is essential to puncture this erroneous and destructive trait. People need to be able to express these emotions, and be taught that these are expected reactions to the trauma they have experienced.
The Iraqi government must provide the necessary funds to train professionals to treat these children to relieve their stress and misery, of whom 4.5 million have lost one or both parents. Over half a million children live on the streets prey to physical and emotional abuse.
The West can help by providing scholarships to Iraqis to gain the expertise necessary to save Iraq from the consequences of mental impairments that could condemn Iraqi society to a bleak future, with its ripples fanning out well beyond its borders.
Surely politicians from whichever sect, supported by the intelligentsia and opinion-formers, could work together to make the goal of helping the children of Iraq a priority. Working collaboratively on helping Iraqi children would, one hopes, generate trust across the ethnic and sectarian fault lines, and may lead to further cooperation. All Iraqis, instead of blaming each other, could focus on such a worthy, humane, and moral project, and with its success improve the chances of a peaceful, prosperous future to the benefit of all.