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Iraq's Orphans Left to the Kindness of Strangers

The shocking pictures of neglect that emerged from a grisly state-run Baghdad orphanage this week revealed the Iraqi government's inability to care for some of its most vulnerable citizens.

With four years of war having cannibalised much of the Iraqi government, volunteers have begun providing vital social services at their own expense, relying on the generosity of friends and neighbours.

The images of the inside of the al-Hanan orphanage were disquieting even by Iraqi standards: two dozen emaciated children, some tied to cribs, others writhing in their own waste and some appearing, at first glance, to be dead.

US and Iraqi forces uncovered the orphanage for children with special needs in northwest Baghdad last week, according to a CBS News report broadcast on Monday.

"They saw multiple bodies laying on the floor of the facility," Staff Sergeant Mitchell Gibson of the 82nd Airborne Division told CBS News. "They thought they were all dead."

Inside the government-run facility, the American and Iraqi troops found 24 boys aged between three and 15 years, many showing signs of severe neglect and starvation. Medics initially feared at least one of the boys was dead.

He had "thousands of flies covering his body, unable to move any part of his body, you know we had to actually hold his head up and tilt his head to make sure that he was okay," Gibson said.

"The only thing basically that was moving was his eyeballs," he added.

"Flies in the mouth, in the eyes, in the nose, ears, eating all the open wounds from sleeping on the concrete."

The caretaker of the orphanage is on the run.

The severely disabled children have since been moved to another clean, well-lit orphanage nearby, with smiling social workers, sun-drenched rooms, ceiling fans, and stuffed animals.

But the grisly episode underscored the breakdown of social services -- and family structure -- in a country gripped by war.

"Iraq has never been a more difficult and dangerous place to be a child," according to the UN children's agency (UNICEF), whose website gives a litany of problems including: a serious decline in immunizations, signs of stunted growth for "one in five Iraqi children," falling education rates, less pre-natal and obstetric care, not to mention children "orphaned by violence almost daily."

In much of the capital the only thing that keeps this growing number of orphans off the streets is the kindness of strangers.

In Sadr City, a vast Shiite slum in northeast Baghdad controlled by the political movement of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, Husham Hassan, 37, cares for around 30 orphans in a home funded by private donations.

Prior to opening the "Safety House," Hassan worked for another private organisation established in 2003 to care for Baghdad's orphans.

But four months ago the organization was forced to close for financial reasons. Fearing for the orphans he helped care for, Hassan opened his own facility with funds collected from friends and neighbours.

The house is cramped but clean, the bunkbeds are freshly made, and the children, aged five to 16, are active and healthy. Volunteers teach reading and math, play with the children, sew clothes, and prepare meals.

"I am in charge of sport activities and sometimes give the kids lessons in reading and mathematics," says Salim Hassan, a volunteer, as he rinses out pans used to cook the children's lunch.

"I volunteered to serve these children without any charge. I regard myself as their father and I have good relations with them. They are just like sons."

Haasan, the director of the centre, relies on the local community for everything, and not by choice.

"When I opened this house four months ago, I did my best to get support from the government through writing appeals and requests," Hassan said. "I even invite d them to visit on some occasions, but I received no response."

Instead, Hassan turned to the local community for help, collecting donations from Sadr City's powerful tribal families.

"We are supporting the house with material and moral support. We are providing security, food, clothes and all the other things that the kids need," said Ali Sumaysum, a tribal chief.

At any given time 25 to 40 children live at the house, with the number fluctuating as Hassan welcomes new orphans and places others with families.

Some of the children have lost their parents to the war, but Hassan says that the majority have been orphaned by divorce, with the collapse of Iraqi society replicating itself in an increasing number of broken homes.


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