Disabled people exist everywhere – so why aren't more books written about us?

As the autumn term gets into full swing and children start a new academic journey, expanding their knowledge and skills, how far has the education system progressed to be more inclusive and teach children acceptance of others? 

As a child, I was an avid reader and loved nothing more than going through as many books as possible, reading about characters from different countries and even planets – yet I never found a single book with a disabled protagonist that I could identify with.

Growing up in Mosul, Iraq, I did not meet or see anyone like me with a disability, so failing to find a disabled figure depicted in storybooks was not unusual and convinced me I was alone in my disability, or, as my family used to tell me, that I was “special, with unique abilities”, so I never expected to find people like me, either in fiction or reality. 

Things changed when I moved to London at the age of 10 and began reading books in English rather than Arabic. To speed up the process of learning English, I forced myself to plough through twice the number of books I would normally read.

As a teenager, I was eager to discover a sense of belonging. I wanted to read about people in similar situations and to know if my innermost thoughts were valid and experienced by others. My eagerness to find books with disabled characters was increased by the fact that in London, I was no longer unique as I met so many people living with disability. It forced me to obsessively ask the question: if disabled people existed widely, why were we not found in literature? 

As my search intensified, I finally found the book I had been waiting for my entire life: My Left Foot by the late Christy Brown, who had cerebral palsy. Not only did the book focus on a disabled figure but it was written by a disabled author. While there were segments of the book that I found bleak, Brown allowed me to imagine anything was possible and told me, through his book, that disability would not be a hindrance to my ambition and passion. 

Yet there are still only a handful of books featuring characters with some sort of disability, mostly written in English and often by able-bodied authors. The portrayal of the disabled character is often through the prism of the able-bodied. A prime example is Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You, a fictional romance between a character in a wheelchair and his carer; the former chooses to commit suicide rather than live with his disability.

Then there is Arabic literature, which has sadly ignored the existence of disabled people, despite the fact there are more than one billion disabled people worldwide, equivalent to 15 per cent of the global population. Globally, literature is failing both disabled children and adults. 

This frustrating fact inspired two female Arab writers to take the initiative to make the Arabic literary world a more inclusive one. Lina Abu Samha, a Jordanian writer, is the founder of Miryana’s World, named after her six-year-old daughter, who was born with cerebral palsy. Abu Samha failed to find any Arabic books to read to her daughter to reflect her own experience.

When she eventually found a series of stories by a Jordanian writer about children with disabilities, she was shocked by the way the book described those conditions. She decided to publish her own children’s book instead. Called Let’s Fly Home, it is based on three siblings and tells the story of two brothers who support and help their disabled sister. For Lina, this is not just reality but a tool for schools and other institutions to talk about dealing with disability. 

In a similar fashion, Shahd Al Shammari, a writer and assistant professor of English literature at Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease of the central nervous system that affects the ability to walk and talk. 

Like Abu Damha, Al Shammari could not find role models for disabled Arab women in literature, so she set out to write a book that helped tell her story. She felt a need to correct this gap in literature but she also wanted to see more raw stories about those struggling to fit into societies geared towards the able-bodied.

Notes on the Flesh is a collection of short stories unravelling the complexities of identity, love and disability in the Middle East. The protagonist is a woman who discovers she has MS and the book focuses on her journey of discovering this new condition and struggling to accept it. As Al Shammari puts it, she was “tired of carrying stories within my body”. 

The book was the first of its kind and universally well-received, leading to her appearance at the Festival of Literature in Dubai last year. Representation is important. Other organisations, events and institutions must play a part in helping provide a platform for such voices. We need to talk about issues involving disability in the same way we discuss the rights of women and minorities. Books like Al Shammari’s at least start the conversation. 

Disability and long-term illness remain taboo subjects. We need more stories that place the protagonist living with such conditions at the heart of narratives, not existing on the margins. 

Raya Al Jadir is a freelance journalist and co-founder of the first Arabic lifestyle e-magazine of its kind, Disability Horizons Arabic


Kurdish woman founds suicide awareness NGO after losing teenage son

Pakhshan Kakawais lost her 16-year-old son Taba to suicide in November of 2017. "One day I woke up early in the morning to see my son commit suicide by hanging. The scene shocked us," she said while recounting her son’s death. 

In a note to his parents, Taba left his only explanation. "I am leaving this world because it would be better without me. I love you all." 

Recounting the aftermath of her son’s death, Kakawais said "his death psychologically engulfed me. I felt guilty. For all the questions and pains I had, there was no place to go, no center or organization, where I could go and ask where I could access psychological treatment,” she said. 

Eventually accessing psychological treatment, her psychiatrist told her Taba’s death “should become a lesson to raise awareness for other children." 

The advice catalyzed Pakhshan into establishing an organization named 'Azhee'- meaning 'you live' - to become a sanctuary for suicide prevention and bereavement. Having worked in women and children’s rights for 20 years, Pakhshan founded Azhee six months ago. 

The organisation hears about deaths by suicide through the media or by word of mouth, she says. "We visit the funeral of the dead and console the family, and we maintain relations with them.” 

Currently run by 14 volunteers, Azhee aims to expand the scope of its work to other parts of Iraq, as “in addition to Kurdish families, even Arabs [from other parts of Iraq] reach out to us." 

"We want it to become an umbrella under which families who have lost ones to suicide can mobilize.” 

According to data from the Ministry of Interior, 125 males and 175 females committed suicide in 2018. And during the first six months of 2019, 80 females and 25 males are suspected to have committed suicide. No statistics specific to children or young people have been collated. 

A sociologist working at the Family Consultancy Center in Sulaimani mainly attributes incidences of suicide in the Kurdistan Region to psychological disorders and depression. "According to our estimates, 35 to 75 percent of suicides come from mental illness," Saman Siwaily told Rudaw English. 

"Sometimes, families take the psychological state of their children for granted and never ask them why they are depressed." "Many of those who commit suicide have previously warned of suicide, but society does not listen to them, nor do they take them to see doctors," Siwaily explained.

Contributing factors for depression-induced suicide include "staggering unemployment, romantic issues, forced marriage of women, bankruptcy among businessmen, the revelation of scandals and other social related issues," he added. 

Kakawais says her organization is now pushing for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to take prevention measures to reduce suicide rates. "With the help of foreign organizations, we are preparing a draft for the relevant KRG authorities," she said. 

"We want to highlight the social factors that cause suicide and submit them to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, psychological factors to the Ministry of Health to work on, and prepare legal proposals for parliament to pass. The overall goal is to reduce suicide including self-immolation which does not receive much attention." 

by Zhelwan Z. Wali and Deeman Burhan


Conflict, climate, mental illness and misinformation among threats to children

Protracted conflicts, the worsening climate crisis, a rising level of mental illness among young people, and online misinformation are some of the most concerning emerging global threats to children, UNICEF have said in an open letter issued by the organization’s Executive Director Henrietta Fore. 

In addition to existing threats to young people, such as access to education, poverty, inequality and discrimination, the inaugural letter warns of emerging threats to children’s rights, and outlines a path to stepping up efforts to address them. The letter is being issued as part of UNICEF’s commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of a Child – the world’s most widely ratified human rights treaty. 

“And your generation, the children of today, are facing a new set of challenges and global shifts that were unimaginable to your parents,” writes Fore. “Our climate is changing beyond recognition. Inequality is deepening. Technology is transforming how we perceive the world. And more families are migrating than ever before. Childhood has changed, and we need to change our approaches along with it.” 

The letter outlines eight growing challenges for the world’s children: prolonged conflicts; pollution and the climate crisis; a decline in mental health; mass migration and population movements; statelessness; future skills for future work; data rights and online privacy; and online misinformation. 

On conflict, the letter notes that the number of countries experiencing conflict is the highest it has been since the adoption of the Child Rights Convention in 1989, with one in four children living in countries affected by violent fighting or disaster. 

On climate change, the letter warns that children are already having to contend with rampant destruction to the planet and a global climate crisis that has the potential to undermine most of the gains made in child survival and development over the past 30 years. The rise in extreme weather patterns and toxic air, prolonged drought and flash floods are all part of this crisis, and are disproportionately affecting the poorest, most vulnerable children. 

UNICEF is working to mitigate the impact of the climate crisis in countries across the world. For example, in Ethiopia, UNICEF has pioneered new technology to map groundwater, and is developing solutions for chronically water-scarce communities. In Malawi, UNICEF has developed a long-lasting, eco-friendly system using solar power to improve access to clean water for communities. Yet more must be done to slow down climate change altogether. 

“Governments and business must work hand in hand to reduce fossil fuel consumption, develop cleaner agricultural, industrial and transport systems and invest in scaling renewable energy sources,” writes Fore. 

The letter also expresses concern that the majority of children will grow up as natives of a digital environment saturated with online misinformation. For example, so-called ‘deep fake’ technology uses artificial intelligence techniques to create convincing fakes of audio and video content, relatively easily. 

The letter warns that an online environment where truth can become indistinguishable from fiction has the potential to totally undermine trust in institutions and information sources, and has been demonstrated to skew democratic debate, voter intentions, and sow doubt about other ethnic, religious or social groups. 

The letter warns that online misinformation is already leaving children vulnerable to grooming, abuse, and other forms of exploitation; skewing democratic debate; and, in some communities, even prompting resurgence in deadly diseases due to distrust in vaccines fueled by online misinformation – the results of which could be the creation of an entire generation of citizens who do not trust anything. 

To respond to this challenge, UNICEF has been piloting media literacy programme, such as the Young Reporters programme in Montenegro, aimed at teaching young people about spotting misinformation online, how to fact check online content, and the roles and techniques of responsible journalism. 

“We can no longer rest on the naïve assurance that truth has an innate upper hand against falsehood in the digital era, and so we must, as societies, build resilience against the daily deluge of falsity online,” writes Fore. “We should start by equipping young people with the ability to understand who and what they can trust online, so they can become active, engaged citizens.” 

On mental health, the letter cautions that mental illness among adolescents has been on the rise in the years since the adoption of the CRC, and that depression is now among the leading causes of disability in the young. 

The letter urges that appropriate promotion, prevention and therapeutic treatment and rehabilitation for children and young people affected by mental health issues be prioritized, and that the stigma and taboo surrounding mental illness be challenged so that treatment can be sought and support provided. 

Finally, the letter recognizes that children and young people have already created movements across the world in search of solutions to overcome the challenges they – and their peers – face, and calls for world leaders to follow their lead. 

“Children and young people of today are taking the lead on demanding urgent action, and empowering yourselves to learn about, and shape the world around you,” writes Fore. “You are taking a stand now, and we are listening.”


Iraqi women urge parliament to approve domestic abuse bill

Iraqi women are calling on parliament to pass a landmark draft bill to ban domestic abuse against women, which has the backing of President Barham Salih but has failed to progress since it was first proposed eight years ago. 

Forced marriage and violence against women has increased in Iraq as the country tackles the destruction of years of war and widespread corruption. 

Mr Salih said in a statement that the bill, which was sent to parliament on Sunday, aims to protect Iraqi families, especially women and girls, from "all forms of gender-based violence", to punish the perpetrators, provide protection to victims and compensate them for damages. 

The draft must now be reviewed by parliament, if passed it will also help provide women with the necessary care and rehabilitation through the establishment of “safe centres for victims of abuse”, the president said. However, it could very well again languish due to vocal opposition among member of Islamist parties. 

Women's rights groups have been pushing for the legislation of the bill since 2011, Sohaila Al Assam, a prominent women’s rights activist, told The National. 

“Violence against women in Iraq is increasing day by day because there are no laws that protect them from domestic abuse and violence,” she said, adding that granting women legal protection will be beneficial for them, society and the country. 

Progress on the bill has stagnated due to divisions in Iraq since the overthrow of former dictator Saddam Hussein, and especially since Islamist parties took over leadership of the government and have sought to impose their religious values on society. 

The draft law must be supported by the police forces, interior and health ministries, Ms Al Assam said, in order for women to exercise their rights. “We need their help and assistance in passing this law,” she said. 

Ali Al Bayati, a board member of the Independent High Commission for Human Rights in Iraq, said that it is also imperative that the law includes clear penalties for anyone that attempts to abuse women or children. 

“It is necessary to accelerate the enactment of this law. It must include preventive programmes to eradicate the idea of ​​gender discrimination within the family and the enslavement of women or children,” Mr Al Bayati said. 

The human rights worker said Iraqi women have been subjected to a number of “catastrophes”, which only increased after ISIS seized large areas of the country. “They assaulted Iraqi families and raped and enslaved women and girls,” Mr Al Bayati said. 

Iraq’s current personal status law enshrines women’s rights regarding marriage, inheritance, and child custody, and has often been held up as the most progressive in the Middle East. But domestic violence is yet to be addressed and observers fear that the bill will not get parliament’s approval. 

Although the Iraqi constitution expressly prohibits “all forms of violence and abuse in the family,” only the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has a law on domestic violence. 

For a law to be successfully implemented it would need a strong institutional and societal infrastructure. This does not currently exist in Iraq, said Balsam Mustafa, researcher on Iraqi politics and society. 

“This law will face many barriers hindering its implementation,” she said, adding that corruption, bribes, and a lack of integrity will present obstacles. Ms Mustafa said that Islamist parties claim the women's rights bill is not in-keeping with their values. 

by Mina Aldroubi


Christian library destroyed by IS welcomes visitors again

The residents of Qaraqosh, Iraq, can borrow books again from the reopened Christian library which was burnt and partially destroyed during the occupation of the town by Islamic State/Daesh. 

Islamic State's invasion of the region forcefully displaced tens of thousands of Christian families. IS militants intentionally destroyed the villages and homes of thousands of Christians, as well as burning their churches and libraries. 

When people returned to their hometown after its liberation, they found most of the library books burnt or stolen. First, with the help of church youth volunteers, dust and ashes were cleaned off the surviving books. People were eager to bring life back to the library and create a cultural and educational hub there. 

Under the supervision of Fr Duraid of the Syriac Catholic Church in Qaraqosh and with the financial support of Open Doors' local partner organisation, the reconstruction of the library was completed within two months and it opened its doors to visitors again. Fr Duraid said: "It rose from the black ruins and demolition debris to a cultural centre. We dream that it will be a space where intellectuals, students, authors, poets and other readers from our village can meet or do research." 

The library is part of the Christian centre for social and cultural activities in Qaraqosh. Seminars and art exhibitions are held at the centre, as well as Christian education and other church-related activities. The library has been named in honour of Fr Louis Qasab, widely known as a highly educated and loved priest from Qaraqosh. 

According to a member of the church committee, Labib al Katib, the restored library will help to educate the younger generation: "I believe the library is very important for motivating people to read and become better educated. Despite huge destruction that still exists around us, people have already started to enquire about this library for their scientific research or studies. We worked hard to renovate it, to turn it into a centre where educated youth, authors, readers and students will get together." 

The modern, spacious design of the library has a big and comfortable reading hall. The books' categories include old manuscripts, religion, science, fiction, politics and children's literature, and there are Arabic, English, French and German sections - around 650 books in total. 

"We still lack books on philosophy, psychology and religion, as well as modern literature, novels and popular books," Fr Duraid said. "We also need dictionaries and a bigger diversity of French and English books. Especially the latter, since we have a few families who came back from Europe to Qaraqosh after its liberation and their children got used to reading books written in English." 

The next stage is to have access to the internet and digitalise the entire collection as well as to get online PDF books. The improved facilities will include computers and printers. The staff is planning to visit schools, promote the library and encourage teachers to hold reading competitions in order to motivate children and students to read more and make a full use of the library. 

The town of Qaraqosh has the largest Christian population in the Nineveh Plains, Northern Iraq. According to local churches, over 5,100 Christian families have returned there since the restoration of the homes began. 

Iraq is number 13 on the Open Doors' World Watch List, a ranking of 50 countries where it is most difficult to leave as a Christian. Islamic extremism is still a problem in Iraq. Although the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) have lost territory in Iraq, their ideology remains. 

Many of the militants have simply blended back into the general population. Many families who were forced to flee their homes by IS have been able to return to the Nineveh Plain and have begun to rebuild their lives and communities.


Paperless people of post-conflict Iraq

During the conflict with the Islamic State group (IS), six million Iraqi citizens were forced to flee their homes. Since the end of the conflict, more than four million have returned home, while 1.7 million people still live in displacement. 

These families struggle to access basic services and face often insurmountable roadblocks to either returning home or rebuilding a life elsewhere. Many, whether still in displacement or returned home, are unable to enjoy their rights as Iraqi citizens and fully engage in the recovery and reconstruction of post-conflict Iraq. 

A foundational reason for this is they do not have proof of their legal identity. Some people lost their documents as they fled their homes; others had them confiscated by various parties to the conflict; and yet others were issued IS documentation, which is of no value now. 

These paperless people, as a result of lacking critical state-issued civil documents, such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, nationality cards and civil IDs, find themselves denied human rights, barred from a range of public services and excluded from recovery and reconstruction efforts. 

Local and international humanitarian agencies like the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) have collectively helped tens of thousands of Iraqis over the last few years obtain, renew, or replace civil documents lost as a result of the most recent crisis. 

However, an estimated 80,000 families across the country still have family members missing at least one civil document. The number of children missing documents is likely much higher. At least 45,000 displaced children living in camps alone are estimated to be missing birth certificates. Without these essential civil papers, they are at risk of statelessness and find it incredibly difficult to access services such as education and healthcare. 

Paperless People of Post-Conflict Iraq is based on research conducted by NRC in partnership with DRC and IRC, through the Cash Consortium for Iraq (CCI) shows how a significant portion of Iraqi families living in urban areas formerly under IS control are being denied basic services because they are paperless.


UN says reconstruction of landmark Mosul mosque to begin next year

The United Nations' cultural agency UNESCO announced last Wednesday that a landmark reconstruction of Iraq's Al-Nouri mosque in Mosul, which was blown up by the Islamic State group in 2017, will start at the beginning of next year. 

The timeline of the restoration plan of the 12th-century monument, famed for its leaning minaret, was hammered out during a meeting in Paris between UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay and several Iraqi officials, including Iraqi Culture Minister Abdulamir al-Dafar Hamdani, and Mosul’s regional governor, Mansour al-Mareed. 

First launched in 2018, the mosque restoration plan will be the most eye-catching part of a $100 million UNESCO-led heritage reconstruction of Mosul. "Revive the Spirit of Mosul" is the largest restoration plan in Iraqi history, and comes two years after the old city’s destruction at the hands of extremists. 

"Today we agreed on a calendar, a precise calendar and plan of action to be mobilised on the ground in Iraq. ... The ongoing phase of structural consolidation and the critical phase of site-clearing and mine-clearing (has) to be achieved from now to the end of the year," Azoulay told reporters."We've also agreed on a timetable that would see the reconstruction start in the first semester of 2020 for the mosque," she added. 

IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared an Islamic caliphate from the Al-Nouri mosque in the summer of 2014, only for IS extremists to blow it up in June 2017 as Iraqi forces closed in. Two years after IS was evicted, Mosul is a city still very much in ruins with no meaningful international effort to rebuild - one that is still struggling with basic services like electricity, water and health care. 

The UN's development program is working to restore private houses in the historic Old City. Most of its residents still reside in camps. The UNESCO initiative goes far beyond the mere restoration of the mosque, and will see the cash be used to rebuild churches, schools and a street in Mosul's Old City, which was famous for its bookshops. 

The UAE is providing $50.4 million to finance the project, focusing on the restoration of the mosque, with the European Union providing $24 million. The decision to select Mosul, as opposed to other Iraqi cities, for a revamp owes to its particular history as a melting pot city. 

"We've chosen Mosul as a symbol because Mosul was before the conflict a city of diversity, a city of tolerance - more than tolerance - a city where people lived together and knew each other beyond communities, beyond religious belongings," Azoulay said. She stressed that she's asked that some of the $100 million go toward the rebuilding of a synagogue and Christian religious sites.


Iraq faces a new adversary: Crystal Meth

Hussein Karim sold his three cars, he sold the land where he planned to build a house, and he spent his savings — several thousand dollars — all on his crystal meth habit. 

He is one of thousands of meth addicts in Iraq, a country where drug problems have been rare. But growing addiction here is the most recent manifestation of how the social order has frayed in the years following the American invasion in 2003. 

Mr. Karim, 32, now lives in a windowless room with his wife, his three children and his disabled brother. “If crystal is in front of you, you have to take it,” he said as he held his 2-year-old daughter on his lap and his 6-year-old leaned against him. 

He says he has been clean for more than two years and avoids anyone who might bring him in contact with the drug. He does not even answer his door but lets his brother do that. He does not want to run into anyone from his old life because he fears he could be pulled back. 

Last year in Basra province, Iraq’s southernmost governorate and the one with the worst drug problems, 1,400 people, almost all men, were convicted of possession or sale of illegal drugs, mostly crystal meth. More than 6,800 are in prison nationwide and that is excluding the Kurdish region, which accounts for about a fifth of Iraq’s population, according to Iraq’s Supreme Judiciary Council. 

Still, that number is relatively small for a country of about 39 million. But because drug addiction has mainly struck two cities — Basra and the capital, Baghdad — it is highly visible. And because it is a largely new problem in Iraq, neither community leaders nor government officials seem ready to deal with it other than by putting people in prison. 

Until about seven years ago, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Iraq was essentially a transit country, meaning most drugs passed through on their way to somewhere else. 

Now it is possible to buy an array of addictive stimulants in Iraq as well as hashish. Illegal drugs are beginning to be farmed and possibly manufactured in labs, according to the police, United Nations experts and working-class urban families who see the scourge affecting relatives. 

Drugs contribute to poverty as families lose their male wage earners to addiction and prison. 

“The government authorities are very shy in addressing this situation,” said Abbas Maher al-Saidi, the mayor of Zubair, a city of 750,000 just north of Basra. Drug use is high among the city’s youths, many of them unemployed. 

“They do not admit this problem because of the social traditions. Even the media is not discussing it,” the mayor said. Among devout Muslims, illegal drug use is considered a shame, tainting not just a family, but the society. 

The government’s approach is to try to expunge any outward sign of the problem. Almost every night, dozens of SWAT teams fan out across Basra province, targeting users and dealers and hauling in suspects. 

Almost all those arrested are ultimately convicted, creating a new problem: The prisons have run out of space and the overflow — hundreds of men — is crammed in holding rooms in the province’s police stations and those of neighboring provinces, where the smell of sweat, excrement and urine is overpowering. 

The rise of drug use in Basra marks only the latest phase of the region’s long slide into criminality that began in earnest after the United States toppled Saddam Hussein. In the absence of Saddam’s tight police grip, religious and tribal groups vied for control of the oil-rich province. 

With authority fragmented, there was little effective crime fighting and some militias even participated in criminal networks. Today, there are regular and specialized police forces, but they seem unable to get ahead of the drug traffickers. 

Unemployment has dropped over all in the post-Saddam era, but it has remained at close to 20 percent among youths, according to the World Bank and other sources. It is even higher in some parts of Basra, contributing to criminal activity, including drug use. 

The use of stimulants emerged and spread about seven years ago. At that time, gangs moved into the drug trade as large quantities of crystal meth became available from neighboring Iran, where numerous labs had sprung up, said Angela Me, the head of research for the United Nations drug agency. 

Since then, Iran has tried to clamp down on the labs, but some production has moved to neighboring countries, she said. Judge Riyadh Abid al-Abass of the Basra Criminal Court said drugs also come from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. 

“Criminal gangs could get the drugs in through the long borders and the Shatt al Arab,” said Adil Abdul Razzak, chief judge of the Basra appellate court. 

The Shatt al Arab is a picturesque archipelago of sand banks and small islands, where Iraq’s freshwater Tigris River turns into an estuary as it flows past Basra and into the Persian Gulf. Small watercraft laden with contraband can easily navigate the waterway from Iran to Iraq. 

Under Mr. Razzak’s supervision, the Basra appellate court has begun to keep records of how the drug arrests correlate with unemployment: He suspects that people without jobs feel they have little to lose when they break the law, and the court has found that at least 90 percent of those arrested are unemployed. 

Drug arrests in Basra are on track to top 1,500 in 2019, up from about 1,300 in 2017. 

Although efforts to reduce the illegal drugs coming through Iraq’s official border crossings with Iran mostly have succeeded, traffickers have turned to alternate routes and toughened their defenses against law enforcement, said the police and judges. 

They now use drones and set up cameras on roads outside their compounds, which have heavy gates and walls that require time for the police to penetrate, said Mr. al-Saidi, the Zubair mayor. The fortified compounds and cameras were easily visible when Times journalists traveled with a Basra SWAT team. 

While it is impossible to prove that any of Iraq’s militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Units, are involved in the drug trade, many of those in prison for drug use say they believe some units work with the traffickers and have an in with the government. 

The units came into existence to fight off the invasion of the Islamic State in 2014. They include some 30 predominantly Shiite groups, with many of the most powerful ones tied to Shiite Iran. Basra, like all of southern Iraq, is overwhelmingly populated by Iraq’s Shiite majority. 

The fact that big traffickers are either never caught or escape from prison soon after capture adds to suspicions about the militias’ role. 

While crystal meth is the most dangerous amphetamine used in Iraq, perhaps the most popular is illicitly manufactured under the name Captagon. This drug appears to be heavily used by fighters throughout the Middle East — much as the allied troops used amphetamines in World War II to keep fighter pilots awake during long forays. 

“Captagon is known sometimes as the drug of freedom fighters,” said Reiner Pungs, an expert at the United Nations drug agency on precursor chemicals for manufacturing illegal substances. “You take Captagon and allegedly, you feel you have more energy,” he added. “People say they stay awake and are not hungry so they can keep fighting under difficult conditions.” 

Mr. Pungs said it was possible that Iraq was now producing crystal meth since, according to an International Narcotics Control Board report in 2018, it imported many tons of pseudoephedrine. The nasal decongestant, found in some allergy and cold medicines, can also be used to make crystal meth.  

In the absence of a drug policy, Iraq has developed a serious prison overcrowding problem. Many inmates complain of overcrowding and ill treatment, but say that what they want most is rehabilitation and help finding jobs when they get out. 

The police holding cells seen by The New York Times had some 70 men stuffed into a space more suited to 10. The men were crammed together, sitting on the floor and taking turns sleeping as a television blared Turkish and American melodramas and action movies dubbed in Arabic. 

There was no place to walk, much less exercise. Some stayed in these conditions for the duration of their term, typically 15 months for first-time offenders. All of them are barefoot to deter escape. 

“There’s isn’t any medication here or any treatment,” said Hamid Jabar Abdul Karim, 32, who used to work as a canine trainer for the Iraqi security forces. Now that he has a drug offense on his record, he said, he was unlikely to be rehired. 

There are a couple of rehabilitation centers, but they are so small they make little impact. 

A drug conviction in Iraq makes it difficult to ever get a salaried job because traditional Iraqi culture views drug use as a “dishonorable crime,” which makes employers shy away, said addicts and government officials. 

For Mr. Karim, the father of three who was an addict for eight years before going to jail, employment possibilities look bleak. He worked as a heavy equipment operator in construction, then as fighter for the Popular Mobilization Units. He sometimes bought crystal meth when he was training in Iran. Now no one will give him a salaried job, he said. 

Compounding his problems is that he is illiterate because, as a farmer’s son, he was expected to stay home to work the land. 

His children are also unschooled. As dusk fell, his middle daughter, 6-year old Rassoul, hung on her father’s arm. “Can we have an ice cream?” she asked. Mr. Karim reached in his pocket, but apparently there was nothing in it. He kissed his daughter’s forehead: “Not today, habibti.” 

By Alissa J. Rubin


Mosul's expectant mothers just can't wait

It’s 2016 and the battle for Mosul has just begun, with Iraqi forces sweeping through Mosul from the east. Street by street, a city that has been under the control of the Islamic State (IS) group for over two years is retaken by the Iraqi government. The sun has not yet risen when Intissar, a midwife from Mosul, receives a knock at her door. 

When she answers, a panicked young man and his mother beg her to go with them to assist the man’s teenage wife give birth to her first baby. Intissar is afraid but, with many of Mosul’s gynaecologists and other female medical staff having fled IS rule, and most of the city’s maternity facilities damaged, the need for midwives who can assist at home births has never been greater. Intissar swiftly obliges. 

“Midwifery is a beautiful profession, because we live alongside women, hear their stories and share their moments of sorrow and happiness and it is very much needed in times of war,” says Intissar. “During the last conflict, I helped women give birth at home. I had women’s relatives come and beg me to care for their wives, sisters and daughters. I was pregnant myself, but I walked long distances as I knew that I was the only midwife in the entire area. People found out about me by word of mouth: ‘You will find a good midwife, she can help,’ they told each other.” 

Later that day, with Intissar’s gentle but firm assistance, the teenage girl becomes a mother. With some thread and a razor blade sterilised in boiling water, Intissar ties and cuts the newborn boy’s umbilical cord, wraps him tightly in a white cloth and hands him to his grandmother, before helping the young mother deliver the placenta. Intissar goes on to deliver three more babies, all of them home deliveries that afternoon. 

Safer births 

“If it were up to me, I would not have performed these deliveries at home – I really feared cases of post-partum haemorrhage,” says Intissar. “Today, I advise women to deliver their babies in a hospital, because everything that is required for a safe delivery is available. A pregnant woman’s condition can deteriorate rapidly, or she can have complications and need a caesarean. Hospital is much safer.” 

More than two years after the battle for Mosul was officially declared over, normal life has in many ways returned to the city’s streets but the health system has been very slow to recover. Many of Mosul’s highly regarded doctors and other medical staff fled the city or the country during the fighting, and mothers and babies still struggle to access care. 

Intissar is now working in Al Rafadain, the smaller of the two free-of-charge maternity facilities run by Medicins Sans Frontieres in west Mosul. She is part of a team of midwives and gynaecologists who assist mothers with regular vaginal deliveries and quickly refer those with complications or in need of caesarean sections to MSF’s larger Nablus maternity hospital, just 10 minutes up the road. 

Today, the morning’s first patient is 32-year-old Assia, who is somehow managing to smile through her contractions while in labour with her eighth child. Like many women in Mosul, her babies born in the past five years were delivered at home – not through choice but through necessity. 

“I had three deliveries at home,” says Assia. “At the time, the conflict was going on, IS were still in control and it was very dangerous to leave the house and go outside, so I had to give birth at home. The roads were blocked and nothing was guaranteed. I was afraid for my baby’s safety as well as for my own well-being.” 

While there are no official figures for home births in recent years, patients in MSF’s maternity units in Mosul often tell similar stories. Even women who have previously undergone caesareans, and are therefore at high risk of complications, often deliver at home, either because they cannot afford the fee charged by local facilities and are unaware of free services like MSF’s, or because their families believe it is better for them to deliver at home attended by a traditional midwife. 

Most pregnant women in Mosul receive no care before giving birth, even those who have paid for an ultrasound scan at a private clinic. 

Women at risk 

“Almost none of the women we see have had proper antenatal care, so we have no idea about how the pregnancy is progressing when they arrive at our door,” says Emily Wambugu, an MSF midwife with over 20 years’ experience around the world. 

“They’re often persuaded to pay for expensive ultrasounds in private clinics but, with no real antenatal care – not even vaccinations or vitamins – it seems these ultrasound clinics are taking advantage of these vulnerable women and doing little more that telling them the gender of their unborn baby.” 

Many women delivering at MSF’s maternity facilities in Mosul come from families who struggle financially. With unemployment running high across the city, many families cannot afford even daily essentials like food and housing, and some of the expectant mothers are clearly suffering from malnutrition. 

In MSF’s maternity units in Mosul, the youngest mothers are in their early teens while the oldest are in their mid to late 40s, sometimes pregnant with their fourteenth or fifteenth baby. The very young women whose bodies are not ready for childbirth, as well as those older women who have had upwards of 10 babies, are at very high risk of complications during pregnancy, labour, delivery and post-partum. 

“Women need close monitoring during pregnancy so that complications like gestational diabetes, anaemia and pre-eclampsia are picked up and treated before they become life-threatening,” says Wambugu. 

“They also need special attention after delivery to watch closely for post-partum haemorrhage. As well as receiving medical care, women young and old need proper information about how to space out their births and give their bodies and families time to recover after welcoming each new baby.” 

Sanaa, 41, married very young. 

“I was only 14 or 15 years old and I didn’t know what being pregnant meant,” she says. Sanaa has a history of difficult pregnancies, including six miscarriages, two in the late stages of pregnancy, which left her feeling traumatised. 

“Afterwards I developed a complex,” says Sanaa. “I didn’t want to have children anymore – I didn’t want to relive that pain ever again.” 

Twenty-five years after her first child was born, she has just given birth again by caesarean – but she has decided that this baby will be her last and had a small surgery to tie her fallopian tubes and ensure she will not conceive again after her latest delivery. “Now I have five girls and three boys, thanks be to God. I can’t wait to go back home with my new baby.” 

About MSF maternity centres in west Mosul 

More than two year since the battle between the Islamic State (IS) group and the Iraqi forces officially ended in Mosul, Iraq, the healthcare system remains fragile with thousands of families struggling to access quality affordable health care and even the community’s primary health care needs remaining unmet. 

Among the most vulnerable are pregnant women, many of whom have been pushed to deliver at home with untrained traditional midwives, either because they cannot afford the fee for delivery or because maternity services are overcrowded or completely absent in their area, as well as their newborn babies who cannot wait for care because the health system is not ready for them. 

In order to respond to this high unmet need, in 2017 MSF opened a specialised maternity unit in Nablus Hospital, west Mosul, to provide safe, high quality and free maternal and neonatal care to women and their babies in an area of the city where the community and the health system continue to struggle. 

In July this year, a second MSF team opened a smaller facility at Al Rafadain Primary Health Care Centre, also in west Mosul, providing routine obstetric and newborn care and offering local women another safe place to deliver even closer to home. Combined, these two facilities are staffed with almost all female teams of skilled Iraqi staff and international mentors that welcome almost 170 babies each week. 

The teams also offer high quality care to sick and premature newborns, family planning services and gynaecological consultations. While these services are well received by the community, they, along with the other government-run maternities, are not sufficient to provide high quality care for Mosul’s population estimated to be around 1.8 million people. 

By 31 August 2019, MSF midwives and gynaecologists in Mosul had assisted 5,176 women to safely deliver their babies since the beginning of the year.


ISIS legacy in Iraq has an enduring effect on Yazidi survivors

Two years ago, the Islamic State was defeated in Iraq. Whether it was the US-led strikes or Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani’s support to Iraqi forces that played a key role in defeating the militant group, it still poses a threat to Iraq’s stability. 

A report written by Glenn A. Fine, principal deputy inspector general for Operation Inherent Resolve, stated that US President Donald Trump’s choice to withdraw troops from Syria and pay little attention to diplomacy in Iraq triggered the “resurgence” and “regrouping” of Islamic State (ISIS) forces in Syria and Iraq. 

The report said approximately 14,000-18,000 troops are active within ISIS. That number suggests the remaining troops are to be considered responsible for recent attacks, killings and agricultural burning in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the world. 

The potential comeback of ISIS raises fears, especially considering that trying to claim justice from a brutal terrorist organisation like ISIS is difficult. 

In 2016, Nadia Murad, an Iraqi Yazidi once held captive by ISIS, gave a powerful and heartfelt speech to the United Nations. Speaking with a bold yet fragile tone, Murad said she wanted to “look the men who raped me in the eye and see them brought to justice.” 

However, what really touched the audience was Murad’s wish that she wanted to be “the last girl in the world with a story like mine.” 

Natasha Ezrow, director of the International Development Studies Programme at the University of Essex, said: “Bringing members of terrorist organisations to justice is incredibly challenging, especially when dealing with international law and a state in transition.” 

To overcome this difficulty, there must be “more momentum behind trying to create more precedence and unity among international courts to punish groups and individuals,” Ezrow said in a telephone interview. 

However, how does one create momentum, particularly when the target is a non-state actor? Ezrow said: “In the past, it has not been very easy punishing non-state actors. They simply do not abide to the rules.” 

Examples of non-state actors that have been difficult to punish include al-Qaeda, the Tamil Tigers, the Shining Path and Abu Sayyaf. 

Ezrow stressed that “unless members of a terrorist group have been captured and they eventually try to attribute something to an individual involved, there has not been a clear template of how to punish the perpetrator of terrorism. Usually, they die. 

“For example, key members who are dictating what to do are killed off. You then have underlings who are possibly members of the group or victims that have been recruited in. From this point on, it’s difficult to determine who did what. Overall, there is a lot of secrecy and denial. It’s not very straightforward.” 

These circumstances are worrying, particularly for the religious minorities that were targeted by ISIS. Such minorities include Iraqi Christians and Yazidis, with women and children being the most vulnerable to kidnappings, torture, rape and being sold as sex slaves. 

The potential resurgence of ISIS in areas such as Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city, and Sinjar, a Yazidi town in Iraq directly south of Mount Sinjar, will heighten fears among inhabitants and exacerbate the mental and physical issues that the minorities -- particularly rape survivors -- suffer with. 

A statement by an Iraqi aid worker named Yousef said an average of 1-2 Yazidi women committed suicide each day in 2015. 

“These women are dealing with trauma, self-blame and cultural shame. All three components combined is a lot for these women to deal with. Being treated like cattle is going to have a negative and lifelong effect on these women,” Ezrow said. 

Ezrow said suicide is still common. “The women either had enough of the daily tortures committed by ISIS or were fearful of the cultural retributions that followed after being raped,” she said. 

Yazidi women having to give up children fathered by ISIS fighters touches on the cultural retribution. Until recently, Yazidi women have been torn between choosing to keep their children and reconciling with their faith and families and community members who may consider the children to be Muslims and therefore not part of the Yazidi faith or community. 

Given the circumstances, one must question whether the child deserves to be with his or her mother but also face the risk of neglect or be put up for adoption and a chance at a new life. 

By Zainab Mehdi


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