samedi 8 mars 2008

Heroines - the daily life of Iraq's war widows

Written by: Iraqi women's organisations

Eighty-two percent of the 2.4 million people displaced inside Iraq are women and young children under the age of 12. Many mothers have lost their husbands in the sectarian violence that has torn the nation apart. But in the face of adversity, they are proving to be true heroines.
These stories, collected by women's organisations in Iraq ahead of International Women's Day on March 8, give a rare insight into how Iraqi widows are helping their families survive while retaining their dignity in times of extreme suffering.

Suhair's story

For the war widows who have moved to the outskirts of Baghdad from all over the country to try to eke out a living, each day is a struggle for survival.
"A lot of these women are young - they are not the 'old ladies' we'd imagine as widows, as we did in the past," says one such woman, Suhair.
"Without food and electricity, it's getting harder and harder to provide for our families. When we wake up in the morning the first thing that we think about is if there is any electricity or fuel. We think about how we are going to put food on the table."
Women like Suhair take great risks by selling what they can - usually chewing gum or tissues - in violence hotspots.

"This phenomenon was hardly visible prior to 2003," says Suhair. "We women face a lot of danger in doing this. The fear of having your children's lives, your life taken away is constant... Your mind stops functioning when on your way to work you see a car near you and you fear it could explode."

There are no longer any vehicles in the streets at the entrance of this part of Baghdad because people are so afraid of car bombings.
"Even in the summer, we sell gas on the streets when it's 60-70 degrees Celsius," she says. "We go to the gas station, wait in line for hours and get very little in return for our hard work. We have to go to the market every day as there is little electricity and food needs to be preserved, especially in summer. Refrigerators are rarely used any more for their original purpose. They are now being used in houses as additional cupboards!"

It's not surprising that fear dominates the minds of these women, especially when they visit places notorious for violence to make their living: markets, gas stations, crowded streets.
"A mother usually has a panic attack when she hears car bombings or shootings," Suhair says. "We ask whether it is our child that might have been killed. As mothers, we cannot hide the reality on our doorsteps as our children face seeing dead people on a daily basis; such a sight has become the norm in their lives.

"But as mothers we are the source of calmness and affection for our children. We have to hide our emotions, keep them to ourselves so that our kids do not feel afraid or worried."

Huda's story

In Huda's house, it's hard not to miss the gaping hole where a mortar fell. Three widows and seven children still live here.
Sewage flows outside the house through an open channel where it finally drains into a big pond. Children play in this water. They are barefoot and wear filthy, torn clothes.
Huda says she lost her husband and her eldest son in the first year of the conflict. Her second son died shortly after, leaving behind a wife and five children.

It's incredible how Huda is managing to look after the family. The area she lives in offers no job prospects so she ekes out a living by baking bread to barter with her neighbours.
An old clay-oven sits in the corner of the room. Pieces of wooden logs are scattered around. With no gas or electricity, Huda uses logs and dry wood that she collects nearby.

She reflects on how things have changed since the war began.
"Life was difficult back then but not as hard as today. When my husband was alive, he used to take up all responsibilities. Now I work from dawn till night. I've become like a machine. I don't enjoy life but I work so we don't need help from anybody."

She pulls one of the children to her, strokes his face and says: "We live on the minimum... I work all day so we can eat. If we do not work, we eat what is left of the stale bread or old food with that so-called tea that we now drink... We cannot visit a doctor if we fall ill.
"Life used to be much better than it is now. We always say yesterday was better than today. It's me and the other widows who do everything now that there are no men to support us. Every day the situation gets more and more difficult."

Basima's story

A dirt road leads to Basima's home on the outskirts of Baghdad. We see her sitting under the sun, watching her grandchildren. Their father is missing. He is one of those labelled "missing with no news".

Basima is about 60 years old. She wears black, as she has done for decades - a sign of how long she has been mourning for her lost family.
Her house is made of mud. It has one room with a small window and a door. She has painted the walls with gypsum and covered the floor with straw mats made of reeds.
Part of the ceiling has fallen. Termites have attacked the beams. She had to build her own roof, on her own, out of mud, soil and hay.

She tells us her house is 3 km from the nearest water source.
"I have two plastic canisters to gather water. One of them holds 20 litres of water. Sometimes I borrow the neighbour's donkey to carry the water but the rest of the time I do it myself. The conditions here are very bad - there is no water, no oil, not enough gas... Since my husband died I receive no pension. I do everything myself."

A tear rolls down her cheek as she lifts her grandson to her lap. The child is thin, wearing a light blouse that doesn't protect him from the cold winter or the heat of summer. He sucks his thumb, something we are told he has done since his mum was killed along with his grandfather, father and uncle.

Basima works all day to provide for her two grandchildren.
"Sometimes we sleep without dinner but I work on a small piece of land that has been given to us which does bring us some food. I go out to collect wood to keep us warm and to cook with."
She goes on: "Sometimes, I wish Allah would take my soul, but my grandchildren, who would take care of them if I were not here? I am a woman taking sole responsibility of my two grandchildren. I've counted the days I've lived like this - I've been here for two years, five months and four days."

Shukriya's story

Shukriya, a 50-year-old woman with six children, lives in a temporary home with no glass in the windows. The floor and walls are made of earth. In spite of the cold weather, all the family members wear summer clothes - they can't afford to buy anything else.
"We have no toilet or bathroom so we go outside," she says. "I built a simple roof from palm leaves, where we wash - I have to heat the water in a metal bucket."

The family has no mats to sleep on nor covers to keep them warm at night. I'm told the roof drips a little but that it is more protected than other people's homes.
When the rain is heavy, Shukriya shares the little space she has with other members of her family. "During the last heavy rain, I took in 14 relatives - we all stayed in one room."
I ask her how life was before the war.

"My family life used to be so different. I wouldn't say we lived as kings but we lived a decent life, a life that meant we didn't go hungry. We owned our own home and didn't have to move from place to place as we do now.
"We had livestock and I planted vegetables and watermelons and helped our men in farming, cropping, harvesting and marketing produce. This was enough to put food on our plates. We got our fair share and it paid quite well."

These days, the family usually only has bread and tea, and often they go to bed without any food at all. They are entitled to food rations every month but the collection point is too far away and Shukriya can't afford to pay for transport. She manages to scrape enough money together to go every three months. This serves to at least supplement the little they have.

"My children have offered to go and get the rations themselves but I fear for their safety, so often I go instead of them," she says.

Shukriya didn't say, but I know many women in her position are victims of violence on such journeys.

"My six children want to work to try to help out the family situation and bring in some income for us all. Unfortunately, no one wants to employ them as they can't read nor write. They go out and try to do what they can but they often come back empty-handed. It's difficult for me to get a job because I can't read or write either."

She continued: "Sometimes I collect Pepsi cans and nylon to sell to factories who recycle them. That way I can make small amounts of money."
Shukriya has asthma due to direct exposure to smoke and fire while baking bread. The damp in her home adds to the condition.

"I no longer have my husband," she says. "He died of tuberculosis. So nowadays, I am completely responsible for my children. It's a big responsibility but what else can I do? I also look after my sister-in-law, which is difficult. She is disabled and therefore can't help us get what we need to live.

"These are our circumstances and this is our life."

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