Leaving the departures terminal in Baghdad airport is like walking into an oven. It is over 50 degrees. I haven’t been to Baghdad for three years. When I last left, I thought the country was on the right track.
Things have, however, taken a sharp turn since June last year – and not in the right direction. More than three million people have been displaced. Many ran for their lives. Children have been abducted, girls raped and tens of thousands of houses looted or seized.
It’s rush hour as we drive into the ‘International Zone’, a fortified area of about 10 square km where the United Nations offices are located. On ‘Route Charlie’ – or the ‘route of the dead’, as it was known during the 2003 conflict – dozens of Iraqi cars are queued at the checkpoint, their human cargo trying to get to work.
At 7 p.m., we meet our colleague A’li in Baghdad. A’li’s just back from the camps of displaced people. He’s sweating. He tells us about the misery he’s witnessed. “The past few days have been sheer hell,” he says. “People were pleading for drinking water.” A’li and colleagues have been working to truck water into the area.
A’li is among some 40 Iraqi staff working with UNICEF in Baghdad, helping children and families in need. Every morning, they take the perilous journey to work. In the past week alone, two bombs have gone off in the capital, killing more than 100 people. According to the United Nations Mission in Iraq, July has been the deadliest month so far this year. “I have to leave my house at five every morning to avoid traffic and the bombs,” Omar, another colleague, tells me.
Back on the airport road, a huge placard reads: “The will of the people is stronger than the tyrants!” A few days later, mass protests take place in Baghdad. Iraqis are protesting the lack of electricity amid what has been reported as the harshest heat wave in decades.
We head north to Erbil, in the Kurdistan Region, which last year received the highest number of families fleeing violence in Mosul and other areas. Many left loved ones behind.
Rami, 12, recounts how his grandfather disappeared when armed groups attacked his house in Hamdaniya, outside Mosul. He now lives in the Baherka camp, which is home to 1,500 children.
As we walk through the camp, I can’t help but think: “Hang on a minute – I’ve been here before.” Except I haven’t. I realize that what this camp in Iraq reminds me of is Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. The similarities are everywhere. It is dusty, boiling hot, full of tents. In a different country going through a different conflict for a different reason, people’s analogous stories of despair sound like restless shouts into the void.
Iraq is spending 35 per cent of its budget on security, and the humanitarian funding is dwindling. On this visit, I keep thinking of the huge duty for aid workers. Up until a few years ago, Iraq was very close to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, especially when it came to children’s enrolment in education. Quite impressive, given that Iraq has gone through more than three decades of conflict, sanctions and economic stagnation. But, like Yemen and Syria, Iraq is now sinking into violence, killings and anguish. Children are at the very centre of the suffering.
A couple of frightening numbers keep popping up as a reminder of the challenge ahead of us: There are 3 million children out of school in Iraq, while 35,000 children under 5 die every year.
I hope that, when I go back to Iraq again in a few years’ time, every single one of these children will be sitting at a desk in a nice school, and all newborns will get to grow up into healthy babies. I wonder what Rami’s destiny will be. Will he continue to live in a camp? Will he get out and rebuild his life? Or will he perhaps, like many thousands, end up fleeing Iraq entirely, perhaps on a rickety boat, thinking, hoping, no matter the journey, life must certainly be better somewhere else?
Juliette Touma is a Communications & Media Specialist with the UNICEF Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa.