Hidden Wounds of Occupation

The Roman historian Tacitus denounced Roman imperialism for its plunder and destruction of its colonies, declaring, “They make a desert and call it peace.”  No phrase is more apt in describing what the U.S. has done in Iraq.

Two new studies released by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Oxfam reveal the devastating toll on Iraq’s surviving population in the wake of the U.S. war and occupation.

The U.S. has besieged Iraq, a country of some 27 million people, for the last 20 years.  The 1991 Gulf War killed hundreds of thousands.  Sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein’s regime led to the deaths of over 1 million people.  The 2003 invasion and occupation caused another 1 million deaths, drove in excess of 4 million from their homes, and caused a civil war that tore apart the society.  In sum, the U.S. has killed or displaced nearly a quarter of Iraq’s population.

According to the WHO’s Iraqi Mental Health Study, a survey of 4,332 Iraqis over the age of 18, about 17 percent of Iraqis admitted to suffering from some kind of mental disorder, the most common being depression, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety.

The Associated Press described this horrific number as a “surprisingly low rate of severe mental disorders.”  But as Dr. Saleh Al Hassnawi, who was involved in the study, stated, “In Iraq, there is considerable stigma attached to having a mental illness.”  So while already high, the real numbers are no doubt greater.

Of course, given the horrors of the last 30 years of U.S. attacks on Iraq, Iraqis have developed nearly super-human coping mechanisms to survive.  As Dr. Abdul al-Monaf al-Jadiry remarked, “Gradually, people seem to have become accustomed to enduring hard experiences.”

Of those who reported suffering mental illnesses, 70 percent considered committing suicide.  If extrapolated to the entire population, over 3 million Iraqis have considered suicide as a result of their disorders.

Given the combination of social stigma and the destruction of the Iraqi health care system, only 2 percent of those suffering mental problems sought out treatment.  Most hid their conditions, self-medicated with various drugs, or asked for Valium and sleeping pills from pharmacists.

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The study released from Oxfam is even more devastating.  A survey of 1,700 women from five of Iraq’s 18 provinces, it portrays the impact of the occupation on women since 2003.  “Now that the overall security situation, although still very fragile, begins to stabilize,” Oxfam stated, “countless mothers, wives, widows and daughters of Iraq remain caught in the grip of a silent emergency.”

The scale of the crisis in Iraqi women’s lives is mind-boggling.  Oxfam reported that 55 percent of the women they surveyed reported they had been the victims of violence since 2003.  Researchers also found that 55 percent of women had been displaced or forced to abandon their homes.

Despite the media celebrations of growing security in Iraq, 40 percent of those surveyed stated that their security situation was worse in 2008 over 2007.  Close to 60 percent of women said that security and safety remained their most pressing concern.

As result of displacement and violence, over a third of the respondents had now become the effective head of their households.  There are an estimated 740,000 widows in Iraq, and the actual number could be far higher.

The U.S. attempt to dismantle the central government’s traditional role as the hub of the economy and principal provider of social services has devastated these women.  Seventy-six percent of widows said they did not receive their husband’s pensions from the government.  While 76 percent said that they relied on government food rations, 45 percent reported receiving it intermittently.  Thirty-three percent had received no humanitarian assistance since 2003, and a majority stated that their income was lower in 2008 than in 2007 and 2006.

Oxfam reported, “Beyond security, the overwhelming concern women voiced was extreme difficulty accessing basic services such as clean water, electricity and adequate shelter. . .  Availability of essentials such as water, sanitation, and health care is far below national averages.”

A quarter of women stated that they did not have access to drinking water on a daily basis and nearly half declared that the water they get is not even potable.  Nearly two-thirds reported that they had less than six hours of electricity each day.

Access to education for women and their children is, unsurprisingly, no better.  Oxfam reported that, “a staggering 40 percent of mothers surveyed said that their children were not attending school.  This is not only because of economic hardship, discrimination against girls and insecurity; it is also a result of the destruction and deterioration of education facilities.”

While the media trumpets this horror as success, those who opposed the war and occupation must not fall under their siren song.  The U.S. government has committed one of the great crimes against humanity in Iraq and owes its people an enormous debt.  The antiwar movement must continue to demand the complete and immediate withdrawal of all occupying troops and we must compel the U.S. government to pay reparations to the people of Iraq so that they can rebuild their society.

This article was published by SocialistWorkers.org on 18 March 2009; it is republished here with the author’s permission.