BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Sitting amid mounds of rotting garbage in a rubbish dump in Baghdad, 13-year-old Huda Hamdan is the human face of a new U.N. report that says a third of war- torn Iraq’s 26 million people live in poverty.
The teenager, wearing a black veil, is taking a break from scavenging for aluminum cans and glass bottles that she sells for a few Iraqi dinars. She tries not to gag from the stench of the decomposing household refuse surrounding her.
She and her six brothers and sisters compete with scores of other diggers, many children and women, made homeless by sectarian violence that has forced them to flee their homes and seek refuge in the sprawling Shi’ite slum of Sadr City.
Scores of displaced Shi’ite families have made the rubbish dump their home — living in unsanitary conditions in tents, crude shacks made from oil cans or squatting in an empty building — and trying to eke out the barest of livings.
A report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and an Iraqi government agency released on Sunday found that 5 percent of Iraqis live in extreme poverty, with Baghdad the least deprived area, and the southern provinces the worst.
The report said a third of Iraqis overall were living in poverty. It gave no comparison with previous years.
But the UNDP said the study “showed a deterioration in the living standards of Iraqis” since Iraq was a thriving middle- income country in the 1970s and 80s. Four years of war, following a decade of U.N. sanctions in the 1990s, has paralyzed the economy and fueled soaring unemployment.
“It shows the failure of the state authorities to provide adequate services to the population,” UNDP said in a statement that also blamed Western-backed efforts to transform the economy into a free market for “exacerbating deprivation levels”.
Hamdan said she and her siblings fled Falluja, a Sunni insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad, after a U.S. sniper shot dead her mother, leaving them orphaned. Now they live with her grandparents and uncles in Sadr City.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are 1.6 million Iraqis displaced inside the country, including 425,000 who fled their homes after the bombing of the Samarra shrine in February 2006 unleashed a wave of sectarian violence.
“We are poor people. We have nothing,” Hamdan says softly.
Holding up her right hand, she takes off a blue and white woolen glove that helps protect her injured hand against the filth and carefully unwraps a surprisingly clean bandage.
Her little finger was severed by the tailgate of a rubbish truck as scavengers crushed around it, desperate to search it before it dumped its load on to the rubbish heap.
Illness and infections among the diggers are common. Looking around the dump it’s not hard to see why. Men, women and children, their clothes caked in thick grime, wade through fetid pools of water or climb mountains of garbage, poking through the rubbish with long, curved metal rods to hook the cans.
Fifteen-year-old Saif has struck lucky. “I found these,” he said, holding up four flat breads. “We’ll clean them and then eat them for breakfast. We have no money to buy food.”
Nearby, Ali al-Yateem, who looks older than his 10 years, heaves a large white canvas sack of cooldrink cans on to the scale of a local scrap merchant, who pays him 2,000 dinars ($1.50) after checking he has not weighted the bag with bricks.
Jawad Habib, 21, was forced from his home in Abu Ghraib, a Sunni stronghold on the western outskirts of Baghdad. He took a job as day laborer in construction, but when a suicide bomber blew up among a group of laborers he came to the dump.
Even there he has found danger lurking in the rotting debris. “I found a grenade and called the police.” He was lucky. Other diggers say a young girl was killed in an explosion.
The plight of Ali, Huda, Saif and Jawad is the result of a “deeply complex political and security crisis with no quick apparent solution”, the UNDP said in its report.
“I’ve been in conflict zones for 22 years. Iraq is unlike anything else on earth,” UNDP country director Paolo Lembo told Reuters in an interview from Amman.
He said the Iran-Iraq war, the 1991 Gulf War, international sanctions and the chaos that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion had delivered a series of hammer blows to Iraq’s economy that had created “a kind of deprivation that is unique”.
“Will the situation improve in the immediate future? No, I don’t think so, but that does not mean I am not optimistic. This country has an enormous wealth of resources.”
Additional reporting by Ross Colvin