Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mean Streets

Unexploded ordnance, a ready supply of arms, continuing looting and the absence of adequate security forces all contribute to violent death on the streets of Baghdad.
By Nir Rosen

On a field in Baghdad's Jihad neighbourhood lies every little boy's fantasy: several dozen Iraqi tanks abandoned among the bushes and palm trees. Their treads do not work, so they are immobile. But they are loaded with shells.


A group of ragged, barefoot children aged between 5 and 12 negotiate the American cluster bombs that surround the tanks, climb onto the machines and then into the turrets. They are lucky: they escape unscathed from their adventure. In Baghdad's Nur General Hospital, a 30-year-old shepherd dies from wounds sustained when a cluster bomb exploded in his face.


In Shaab City, a poor neighbourhood of eastern Baghdad, five-year-old Fahd holds a propellant rod removed from an explosive device and lights one end. He watches a ball of fire race down the rod to his hand and then tosses the flaming rod into the ground, where it shoots around in circles. His three-year-old sister holds a rod in her mouth. Their uncle shows off the heavy-calibre rounds he found on an unguarded ammunition dump.


The American and British occupation forces estimate that Baghdad alone has 700 sites containing unexploded ordnance, missiles, armoured vehicles and tanks abandoned when the Iraqi military fled, leaving them to be looted and sold. Some of the 700 sites will need several days to clear. Baghdadis will have to wait years before their city is free of the dangerous detritus of war.


All across Baghdad, Iraqis are attempting to sell assortments of goods - screws, pipes, sneakers, computer, footballs, AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades available for $50 - that have likely been stolen. Every neighbourhood has its own weapons bazaar manned by youths who offer almost every type of heavy weapon and are eager to demonstrate them by firing into the air - a practice that has itself taken several lives. When an American patrol drives by, everything goes under boxes or into the boot of a car - only to be brought out again when the convoy has disappeared from sight.


With so much weaponry so readily available, Baghdad nights are punctuated by the sound of gunfire. Its victims usually end up in the city's Criminal Medicine Department, which squats on a muddy, congested road near the Ministry of Health. To one side, an old man vomits against a wall. In front of the entrance are a bus filled with weeping women and an empty, bloodstained coffin. The sour stench of death wafts into the halls.


By 11 a.m., three hours after opening, the coroner, Dr.Hassan Faisal Lazim, has already seen 15 bodies. Before the war, he received about five a month. The state had a virtual monopoly on violence and the bodies of its victims were taken elsewhere. But since Baghdad fell into American hands on 9 April, Dr. Lazim has been receiving an average of 15-25 bodies a day - all killed violently; many of them victims of random, casual violence.


Ominously, women are for the first time becoming victims of street violence. Cases of rape, never before known outside the orgies and torture chambers of the Ba'ath, have been noticed in Baghdad. In recent days, Dr. Lazim received three female bodies. Two of the women had been raped and then killed. The third had had her throat cut.


Dr. Lazim estimates that some 800 people have died violently since the war ended and that 90 per cent of them have been brought to his Criminal Medicine Department. Since weapons are easy to find, and since there has been no judicial system since Saddam's regime collapsed, there are no legal consequences. Disputes and vendettas can be settled violently with impunity.


"It is the duty of the international forces to create security," Dr. Lazim says. "There is no regime, no order. I am afraid to argue with any person on the street."


Hospitals - many of them looted in the early days after the war - are fighting a losing battle to cope with the rising numbers of injured. Hospital directors complain they have received no assistance from the coalition forces who failed to protect them against looters. Broken drains, poor sewage systems and piles of rubbish attract insects that carry diseases.


With only a few hours' electricity a day, hospitals rely on generators and, when these fail, candles. Water, when it is received, is contaminated and has contributed to outbreaks of typhoid, gastro-enteritis and diarrhoea. Medicines, anaesthetics and oxygen are all in short supply.


"There is a shortage of everything - blood, equipment, staff," said Yacoub al-Jabarri, a microbiologist at the national blood transfusion centre, which is situated inside a complex known as Medical City. Al-Jabarri said he, like most government employees, had not received his salary - already devalued to be almost worthless - for three months. As a result, many hospital workers lack motivation.


"Out of order! Out of order! Out of order!" he said, hitting one centrifuge after another. Then, opening a dirty refrigerator and pointing inside: "This contaminates! We don't save people here. We kill them!"


Air conditioning systems are shut down most of the time because of the interrupted electricity supply, and so vaccines and medicines spoil. Hospital staff have no computers and recycle carbon paper. Ambulance crews have trouble finding petrol and are stopped by US troops when they transport patients during night-time curfew hours. Medical staff leave work by early afternoon to be sure of getting home safely.


The only order in this chaos comes from the protection offered, especially in Shia areas of the city, by armed religious activists. They are filling a vacuum created by the collapse of the former government. Once firmly ensconced, they will not be easily dislodged.


Nir Rosen is a freelance journalist and IWPR project editor in Baghdad.