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09/01/2010 05:51 PM

Life in Baghdad's Slums

Fighting to Survive in Sadr City

By Ulrike Putz in Baghdad

Iraq's poorest people live on trash heaps, sleep amongst the rats and drink polluted water. In the country with the world's third largest oil reserves, a million people live in misery, despite the fact that the US has spent $53 billion on the country's reconstruction efforts.

The rats come at night, when the Saads are sleeping. They force their way through the spaces between the thrown-away household appliances that Saad Kadi Saad has piled up to form a wall around his part of the rubbish dump. They scamper around the shredded double mattress where the five-member family is crowded, and make their way to the outhouse that the family uses to relieve itself, which is just a few steps away from their outdoor bed.

Sadr City is Baghdad's poorhouse. Around 3 million impoverished people are crowded into the Shiite Islamist-controlled suburb in the eastern part of the Iraqi capital. The streets all have the same checkerboard pattern; and, in the 1960s, farmers from the Iraqi provinces were meant to find new and modern living spaces here. Instead, as many as five families live together in the small apartments at times today, and the sewage runs in the street. But for some it is even worse: The Saads would consider themselves lucky if they actually lived in Sadr City.

Instead, they live in and around the trash that is produced in the impoverished area. In order to get to their dwelling, they have to crawl through a hole in a blast wall on the edge of Sadr City. The slum located directly behind that hole could easily be in, say, Calcutta. Those who live here have fallen as far as one can.

Built on Waste

The settlement on the dump, in which the poorest of the poor in Baghdad live, is called Teneke Village. Teneke is the Arabic word for the metal canisters that motor oil is sold in. In Germany, the empty cans are considered hazardous waste which need special disposal. But in Iraq, the country with the world's third-largest oil reserves, residents of the slums use them to build shacks, and old oil leaks down the side of the wall. In this way, the Saads, for once in their life, come into contact with Iraq's black gold.

"We live from selling the cans that we collect amongst the trash," says the father. He is hungry because there is not enough to eat at home. The little bit of rice that his wife Zeinab has cooked is to be given to their three children. About once every three days, the Saads succeed in collecting a bag full of cans, earning them the equivalent of around €3 ($4). It's often not enough money to buy vegetables, and it is never enough for them to purchase any meat.

The Saads have fallen into abject poverty, but they are hoping for a better life for their children. "We want our son Haidar to go to school," his father says. He would be the first in his family to do so. But first Haidar's sores must heal. Since the family moved from the provinces into the city and the trash two years ago, the six-year-old has been suffering from numerous infections on his feet and on his scalp.

"I voted for the Sadrists," Saad says proudly. Their leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, is a populist cleric and the former head of a bloodthirsty militia, who became a kingmaker in parliament five months ago after the extremely tight election. The Sadrists are co-opting the same recipe for success that has been successful elsewhere in the Middle East -- with Hamas in the Palestinian territories or Hezbollah in Lebanon, for example. They incorporate a deep degree of religiosity as well as leaders who accentuate their efforts to live modestly. They also boast of being close to the people and have become the heroes of the underdog. In the current delicate negotiations to form the next Iraqi government, they could also hold the balance of power.

Below the Poverty Line

The Sadrists and other parties acting as advocates of the poor are the great hope for the 7 million Iraqis who, according to the United Nations, live beneath the poverty level of $2 per person per day.

In the past seven years, the United States has pumped around $53 billion in civilian aid into Iraq through a program that is roughly tantamount to a modern Marshall Plan. The money was intended to create a flourishing economy, supported by a strong agricultural sector and a strong middle class.

But that's not the reality today. Every fourth household has no running water. Close to 60 percent of all sewage is pumped, without being treated, into the desert. The electricity supply in Baghdad has deteriorated again to the point that power is only available to customers for up to three hours a day, making any normal business life in the capital city impossible.

The reason for the misery is the political standstill. The government is incapable of acting, and the national parliament hasn't passed a single act of legislation in nine months. On top of that comes mass corruption, which has proven all-corroding in Iraq. Transparency International has named Iraq one of the fifth most corrupt countries in the world. Not far from the slums, politicians can lead a luxury life that couldn't seem any more remote. The lion's share of the reconstruction money has been funnelled in to the wrong pockets and projects, claims Christine McNab of the United Nations Development Program in Iraq.

'We Need a Mahatma Gandhi'

"By helping Iraq, you help yourself," reads a sign posted at the entrance to Sadr City. And that's exactly what Ali Kamel is trying to do. He long ago gave up the belief that any politician was going to do anything to help him. Ten days ago, he dragged himself on his diabetes-ravaged feet from Sadr City to Baghdad's Tahrir Square to protest. In a small, damp, one-room apartment, in which he lives with his wife and their four children, he shows the bedsheet painted with words that he held up with the help of his 10-year-old son. "The hungry is strong," it reads, in both Arabic and clumsy English. "My problem start at 1990 and I'm never found the solve until now."

It was in 1990 that Kamel, who was still healthy at the time, lost his job in Saddam Hussein's army. His uncle had been executed because he had been a member of the banned Islamic Dawa Party, and his two nephews were also punished. Kamel lost his job in the military. When the Americans marched into Iraq in 2003, Kamel celebrated: Finally the hated dictator had been toppled. When Nouri al-Maliki, the head of the Dawa Party, got elected as Iraq's prime minister in 2006, Kamel hoped he would be rehabilitated, or that he might receive compensation. "But nobody gave me anything -- no job, no help," the 50-year-old says.

Kamel's wife Um Zayad has breast cancer, his feet are dotted with festering wounds. They suspect that the tap water made them sick: It smells like fecal matter and chemicals. But the Kamels can't afford bottled water.

Threat of a New Civil War?

The fact that the two seriously ill parents are even able to provide their children with at least one meal a day is attributable to their tribe. Every other social safety net has failed, but it is precisely the tribes who have served as a support network to several million distantly related people. But the tribal structures also facilitate cronyism, which makes any attempt at democratization bound to fail.

The tribes are one of the reasons why, five months after the election, the country still doesn't have a government, says one European diplomat based in Baghdad. "The men at the top try to consolidate as much power as possible," he said. After all, power means money -- money that the politicians, their supporters and their tribal brothers can redistribute. "In an atmosphere like that, no politician can form a coalition. One's own tribe will see any compromise as a lost of revenue, and they wouldn't forgive the leader."

No small number of Iraqis believe that the ossified structures could be eliminated in a new civil war. Despite his suffering, however, Kamel is an optimist, and he believes in a different path. "We need a Mahatma Gandhi," the father says. "One who can see the suffering of his people and decides to end it peacefully."

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