Earlier this week, medical charity Medicins Sans Frontieres released its annual list of the world's top 10 under-reported humanitarian stories, throwing the spotlight on crises from Central African Republic to central India. All the emergencies had one thing in common -- they were given next-to-no airtime on U.S. TV networks' nightly newscasts in 2006. In the battle for eyeballs, suffering in Chechnya, Colombia and Congo just couldn't compete with geopolitically sexy stories like Iraq.
But here's a question out of left-field: Could Iraq itself be an under-reported humanitarian emergency?
The key word here is humanitarian. There's no doubt that the political story of Iraq monopolises the headlines -- and not just in the weeks leading up to Saddam Hussein's execution.
It's a damned good question. The news media treats Iraq like a game of Risk with players fighting over a country in the middle east. There may be no one in the developed world who doesn't know there's a war in Iraq, but there are probably plenty who don't know the extent of the humanitarian crisis. As we so often do when we discuss, analyze, and fight political battles at home over wars abroad, we tend to forget -- or ignore -- the fact that people actually live there.
At the last count I was able to find (dec. 14, '06), there were at least 800,000 iraqi refugees in Syria alone. There must be a refugee crisis in Iran as well. Both countries have been singled out for meddling in the Iraq war and President Bush warned both to stay out when he announced troop escalation. Wouldn't knowing about the refugees put Iran's and Syria's actions into context? Ending the war in Iraq would solve an internal crisis in both countries.
The iraqi people are suffering a terrible disaster, while the media concentrates -- not without reason -- on the bombs and bullets and the american POV. Those few iraqis we hear from are those at the top -- Maliki and Talibani. Ordinary iraqis are almost entirely absent from our television screens.
Now, consider the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina -- who did we hear from most there? The press talked to survivors, cried with them, showed us what they were suffering through. As a result, a lot of people probably felt they had a better grasp of the humanitarian situation than even the president. The words of officials were like a voiceover in a documentary -- the bland assurances only served to contrast with reality.
JENNIFER MAYERLE, CORRESPONDENT, WKRG-TV: How are you doing, sir?
HARVEY JACKSON, LOST WIFE IN HURRICANE KATRINA: I'm not doing good.
MAYERLE: What happened?
JACKSON: The house just split in half.
MAYERLE: Your house split in half?
JACKSON: We got up on the roof, all the way to the roof. And water came. And the house just opened up and divided.
MAYERLE: Who was at your house with you?
JACKSON: My wife.
MAYERLE: Where is she now?
JACKSON: Can't find her body. She's gone.
MAYERLE: You can't find your wife? [Mayerle choked up here]
JACKSON: No. She told - I tried. I hold her hand tight as I could. And she told me, you can't hold me. She said take care of the kids and the grandkids.
MAYERLE: Where are you guys going?
JACKSON: We ain't got nowhere to go. I'm lost. That's all I had. That's all I had.
When we see the individual tragedies, we understand. As it is, most people don't know about refugees from Iraq. If there are 800,000 in Syria alone, it's no stretch to think that there are over a million -- perhaps 2 million or more -- spread throughout the region. There are also internally displaced persons, made homeless by war.
In 2004, Medicins San Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders was forced to shut clinics in Iraq. The public health system in Iraq is virtually non-existent. An iraqi physician identified only as Dr, Bassam reports:
The level of medicine has deteriorated considerably in Iraq. It had already dropped after the Gulf War, but it has really gotten worse in the past few years. Before the war, a lot of patients came to Iraq for surgery, from Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere. It wasn't expensive, and there were a lot of specialists. And medical care here had a good reputation. The situation deteriorated after the Gulf War, but got even worse after 2003. Now, security issues have top priority for the few existing financial resources, and medical needs are forced to take a back seat. This morning, dozens of people were killed in Fallujah. Yesterday it was Baghdad. And that's not counting the wounded, who add to the long list of emergency cases packing the hospitals. Every day brings a new batch of dead and wounded. In this context, patients simply cannot receive proper treatment from an increasingly overwhelmed health care system. Some are forced to sell their car, or even their house, to get certain kinds of care in the few hospitals able to provide it.
Imagine the tsunami in Indonesia or Hurricane Katrina happening every goddamned day and you begin to understand what's happening to people in Iraq. People who, by the way, the Bush administration would argue we're both freeing and saving. Some rescue -- it's like throwing a drowning man a cinderblock. There is a hole in every family -- there's almost no one who hasn't lost someone in this war.
International Committee of the Red Cross:
"Car bombs, shootings, bombings, abductions and killings have become commonplace. Clearly civilians in Iraq are paying the highest price for the conflict," said Mr Comninos.
Mr Comninos pointed out that the series of attacks and explosions that occurred in Baghdad and Sadr City last week were followed immediately by further attacks against civilians, illustrating how the cycle of violence continues to be fuelled.
Due to the dire lack of security, the population finds it difficult to obtain essential services such as medical care, clean water and electricity.
Mr Comninos evoked a recent visit to Iraq where he had seen just how hard life has become. "Today it is rare to find a family in Iraq that has been spared. Fear of being killed or kidnapped or of becoming a refugee in one's own country is ever-present. Even staying at home does not always guarantee safety."
According to estimates of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, more than 42,000 families have been displaced since February 2006.
While we haggle about troops surges and global concerns, it might be a good idea to remember that people live in these places we discuss -- these aren't squares on a chessboard.
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